Ethics of Photography – Participation

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Ethics has two broad modes of definition – personal and organisational.

In everyday use, the word ‘ethics’ gets used in many different ways. For example, sometimes we talk of an individual’s ethics. And sometimes we talk about the ethics of an organisation. In the later, we are treating an organisation as a body with intention, just as if it were a human being.

This logic we owe that to Immanuel Kant. Whilst he did not use the modern language of systems, he worked with the same ideas – organisms (and organisations)  which are autonomous, self-organising wholes. Kant wanted to reconcile the then-forming ideas of modern science as a series of discoverable, predictable rules, with that of human free will. His solution was to say that there was no paradox – we can be both part of a natural, scientific system and also operate with free will. The ‘both – and‘ argument.  Kant cautioned against overusing the systems logic, in order to preserve the notion of individual free will which was his main concern – but modern organisational theorists do exactly that. It has become a theory of modelling. An Organisation acting as an entity … suggesting it had its own ‘ethics’ and is self-regulating.

Modern leaders are seen as essential to the working, culture and ethics of an Organisation, and are both inside and outside of it. They are considered both in the system and operating on it. They design and engineer a culture and then are an integral part of it – keeping things running smoothly. But they also are charged with disturbing it when change is necessary. And culture has ethical dimensions – what are the right things to do.

At its most extreme, pervasive use of ‘mission, vision, values’ is an example of a cult technique, where members of the organisation must comply. In fact Adorno noted that fascism is built on the desire of the individual to become a part of a pre-defined ‘whole’, and that is where ethics fails.

Postmodernism, in declaring illusory the paradox between stability and change is one way of addressing these questions. But I think there is a more constructive approach possible.

Douglas Griffin, as a complex systems thinker, argues that rather than seeking ethical universals and fixed realities, ethics can spring from the interpretation of collective action to be found in the actions themselves – in other words, self-organisation.

An ethics based on autonomy, of the individual or of a systemic whole, is an ethics based on universal moral principles, which do not depend on social or natural contingencies. … This is an idealised view of ethics in which autonomous leaders exercise their freedom independently of the contingencies of nature and society’. (2002: 210)

And this also means that when others participate in that system, they loose their freedom.

‘Ethics becomes the voluntary giving up of individual, selfish and egoistic inclinations in order to participate in the self-organisation of the system’. (2002: 211)

Cult values are an idealisation of the collective.

‘As soon as cult values become functional values in real daily interaction, conflict arises and it is this conflict that must be negotiated by people in their practical interaction with each other. Functional ethics is this negotiation’. (2002: 211)

Griffin argues that this leads to an ethics counter to Kant’s ethical universals, in that autonomous individuals submit to some systemic definition of what is ‘right’, and participation becomes submission to an harmonious whole, rather than an individual act of free will.

This very way of eliminating paradox is what many organization theorists are calling paradox. It is claimed that culture both acts on individuals and individuals decide what the culture is’. (2002: 208)

He thus proposes a distinction between systemic and participative self-organization as being fundamental to handling the paradox of systems thinking and free will.

Douglas Griffin. Participative Self-Organisation. 2002:14.

Griffin argues that participative self-organisation is actually the key mechanism – creating and defining culture, ethics and so forth.

He comments that organisations are not ‘things’ (especially not ‘living things), but instead are processes of communication between individuals and joint action. It is all about interaction and iteration – and that is where the development of ethical thinking resides.

Griffin’s notion of participation as a principal mode of human activity thus challenges the modernist idea of autonomous action. Leadership emerges, and ethical values emerge as the leader-follower relationship self-organises.

In my 10-point framework, I do set out Network effects. But I think that Griffin is pushing well past that. Perhaps another point is required – individual versus organisational considerations; Autonomy vs Institutional Intention? I could include that in ‘Roles’, but I think for now it is better examined separately.

The question of type of organization and participation is also relevant. In colonial era-photography, little heed was taken of concerns raised by indigenous populations – in terms of general consent, and particularly about religious and spiritual events. These are alluded to in the original 10-point framework, but I feel the issues need more focus.

I also yesterday separately addressed genre, and specifically nature photography.

So, updating the framework:

  1. SURFACE – THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ITSELF (Technical – Composition – Manipulation)
  2. MEANING – THE SUBJECT MATTER (Content – Symbols – Narrative – Caption)
  3. GENRE – UNIQUE CONSIDERATIONS (e.g. Documentary, Nature, News, Portrait)
  4. TIME AND PLACE (Significance – Appropriateness – History – Altered Meaning)
  5. SOCIETY – CULTURAL & RELIGIOUS CONSIDERATIONS (Understanding – Respect – Sacred – Taboos)
  6. GAZE – GENDER, RACE & EQUALITY (Stereotypes – Colonialism – Norms)
  7. POWER – RELATIONSHIPS (Photographer – Subject – Curation – Audience – Media)
  8. CHANGE – INTENTION (Observe – Document – Advocate – Programmatic)
  9. NETWORK – DISTRIBUTION & REUSE (Trustworthiness – Context – Alteration)
  10. LEGAL (Ownership – Consent – Privacy – Data Protection)

Yet more food for thought and research.


GRIFFIN, Douglas. 2002. The Emergence of Leadership: Linking Self-Organisation and Ethics. Abingdon: Routledge.

KANT, Immanuel. 1781. Critique of Pure Reason. Norman Kemp Smith, 1929, 1968 printing. London: Macmillan & Co.

KANT, Immanuel. 1785. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. 2002 Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Available at: (accessed 17/05/2019).

KANT, Immanuel. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. 2002. Indianapolis: Hackett. Available at: (accessed 24/01/2018).