Definition: Photography and Ethics

Definition: Photography and Ethics | Glossary entry

Photographic Ethics

Ethics is about the moral principles that people work with. Societies, countries, groups all have ways of deciding what is right and wrong. ‘Correctness’ or acceptable conduct is one of the outcomes of ethics.

Photographers have developed their own ideas about what is right and wrong. As you might expect there are different opinions. So, as in other walks of life, there is no agreement on the ethical principles that apply across photography. Nevertheless there are some things in the sphere of photography that do have a moral dimension.

File editing and post-processing

Editing image files and post-processing can be extremely invasive, virtually or completely changing the original file. However, this is considered to be part of the modern art of photography. Many photographers would argue that today the sophisticated tools we use to digitally edit a file are merely extensions of the more basic tools used to develop film in the days of chemical (film) photography. Certainly many of the digital editing tools we use today are based on and named after techniques used in the dark room for developing film. To ‘burn in’ (darken an area of film) gives us the ‘burn’ tool today. To ‘dodge’ (brighten an area of the film) gives us the dodge tool today. Other terms film workers might recognise would be ‘masking’, ‘cropping’, ‘retouching’, ‘zooming’, filters.

The sophisticated array of editing tools available allow the creation of something new. The ethical issues spring from concern that the old tools were limited in effect. Whereas, modern digital tools are significantly more powerful. Ethical concerns arise from the fact that changes to the character of the image will mislead the viewer. In effect, the camera does lie, given modern editing techniques.

If the image relates to issues of justice or reporting then ethical concerns over image edits have much more force. People want to ensure that journalists and legal enforcement have higher moral standards when it comes to editing. On the other hand the public want to be entertained. So there is a high degree of tolerance about image editing with respect to images that are arts, leisure, entertainment or culturally directed.

Some photographers and authorities argue any form of changing the file, over and above the exposure, removal of dust spots and colour adjustment for printing is unethical. In recent years a number of notorious cases have seen journalists dismissed from their employment for retouching images. The media are conscious of the trust issues that affect journalists in their work. Misleading the public might create a public backlash if People lose faith in the quality of reporting and the reliability of its content. The ethical grey areas are quite broad however. There is sometimes a fine line between cleaning up an image and changing it’s meaning. It is therefore sound advice to avoid manipulation of images where there may be any misinterpretation over meaning.

The ethics of editing images in the field of entertainment are also grey in some areas. Some of the sensationalist press have taken to extremes the manipulation of images of celebrities and their environment. So called ‘airbrushing’ or ‘photo-shopping’ to change body shape and promote youthfulness and vitality is extensive. Arguments range across issues of social manipulation and simple profiteering. The ‘media circus’ approach to image editing is considered amusing to some and pathetic to others. It has however been pointed out the the extremes of body shape manipulation from editing amount to an unhealthy influence on the young and vulnerable or seek in the long run to objectify women in particular.


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