Ethics and Vision

By Liam Kennedy and Justin Carville

Ethics, or what is described within the academy as moral philosophy, proposes questions about how individuals and societies should behave and live their lives through actions and reactions towards others. As an intellectual exercise it has been linked to Western humanism since the writings of Plato and Socrates in Ancient Greece right up to the present day. Aristotle, for example, explored how one could acquire dispositions that could become established through knowledge and habit and therefore allow individuals and society to develop moral character. Following Aristotle’s lead, we can ask how should I/we (society) look at and respond to images of death, destruction and suffering? What images should be looked at and which should be ignored or censored? And who is ethically responsible for the production, publication and circulation of conflict imagery?

A girl takes a photo at a Rankin exhibition of images he has recently taken in the Congo. Lionel Healing/Getty Images.

These questions acknowledge the existence of three overlapping spheres of ethical practices and responsibility. In one sphere there is the photographer who is subject not only to ethical policies and procedures that may be corporate as well as cultural, but also to their own individual ethical and moral code defined by everything from religious or secular beliefs to ethnic and racial background. In a second sphere are those collective agents who publish, distribute, exhibit and promote images of conflict and suffering. Within this sphere are complex social, cultural, political and technological influences that bear down not only on editorial decisions to censor, doctor or publish particular images, but also the context through which photographs of pain and suffering circulate within the public sphere. These spheres shape and are in turn shaped by the practices of looking at images of conflict by the wider viewing public who may or may not have established ethical expectations of the photographers and organizations that publish and circulate through various media platforms images of pain and suffering. It is possible to conceive, for example of a Western ‘ethical gaze’ that complies with rules, codes and practices that define the limitations and possibilities of what and how one should look at representations of conflict and suffering?

All three spheres coalesce around the ethical function of the photographic image as a mode of evidential representation that bears witness to the suffering and degradation of others. This ethical function signifies a moral economy in the act of looking at the suffering of others; it defines categories of human need and harm, and constitutes caring and suffering subjects through conventions of visual representation. Documentary photography and especially photojournalism plays an important role in providing the iconography of this moral economy – through its use of generic tropes and formal conventions it fashions scenes and scenarios, and composes bodies and landscapes, in ways that foreground issues of human relationality. A complex interplay of formal conventions and ethical considerations characterises the production, display and reception of photojournalistic images of conflict and human rights abuses, more particularly when these images, as they so often do, focus on bodies in pain.

A well nourished Sudanese man steals maize from a starving child during a food distribution at Medecins Sans Frontieres feeding centre at Ajiep, southern Sudan, in 1998. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images.

Photojournalism has long assumed that to bear witness is also to arouse concern, to provoke indignation, perhaps even to move the viewer to action. In such cases, the image is an indictment. However, this assumption of cause and effect – in the relationship between the image and emotion and, beyond that, in the relationship between suffering and justice – is open to many questions. The visual representation of human suffering inscribes aesthetic, ethical and political concerns that are rarely in harmony.

Many questions flow from this disjuncture. Among them:

  • How and why are human rights claims imaged? By this we mean: how (by what means) and why (to what ends) are the images produced, circulated and consumed?
  • What are the practices and policies that surround the making and dissemination of the images?
  • How is image-making used as a response strategy within the NGO sector? How have picture policies evolved in the sector? How effective are they?
  • What are the conventions at work in the images, the visual cues that feed and shape our expectations about what suffering such look like?
  • Why do we have such consistent recourse to a narrow band of stock images of suffering?
  • What structures of feeling are inscribed in and evoked by imagery of suffering? Empathy, compassion, pity, shame, anger? What are the relations between such feelings and social knowledge or action?
  • What is the role of sentimentality in image-making and framing? Can/should it be expunged from human rights photography or is it the inevitable trade-off in attracting attention and funding? If so, could it be used more reflectively?
  • Do images have any effect on policies? On fund-raising?
  • What are the roles of photographic images in post-conflict settings and scenarios – as legal evidence, as educational therapeutic?
  • How do images of human rights issues affect our understanding of worlds elsewhere? Of our human relationality in an age of globalisation?
  • What do human rights images want? What do they ask of us?

For references see the Ethics and Vision section of the bibliography