With more and more people getting into photography, we at oopoomoo think it’s timely to open a discussion about ethical behaviour and field etiquette. It’s also about time we post a code of ethics here on oopoomoo.com. Here’s our first kick at this; we might modify the code from time to time based on your input and changing cultural values.
Let’s start with an underlying assumption: most people get into photography because they love to take pictures of people, places or creatures – and not to destroy them. Sounds reasonable! So this means that any harm caused when people take pictures is probably incidental either through carelessness or ignorance. So that’s why it’s a good idea to revisit the concept of ethical shooting from time to time – and especially as the digital revolution has brought the joy of photography to more and more of us.
First, we need a guiding principle. This is going to be the yardstick against which we measure all our actions. “Do I or don’t I?” should be easily answerable if we get this main idea right. An obvious starting point is that old idea ‘do no harm’ which is something most of us understand even if we’re not doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath. We learn this one early on, usually because when we hurt someone else, something bad happened to us. I hit a kid in the sandbox, he punches me back, or the teacher gives me a time-out. We just don’t seem to get far ahead if we go around harming things!
But is it enough? It’s morally neutral, at least. The status of people, plants and animals is unchanged. If you think about it, causing no harm is actually really hard to do and is almost impossible to measure! Just by stepping out our door we crush insects underfoot, trample grass and compress microorganisms in the soil. And let’s not even talk about the effects on pollution we produce when we travel somewhere to take pictures!
Maybe it’s impossible to do no harm in its most literal sense. We might as well stay home in bed with hot chocolate and Pride and Prejudice for the rest of our lives (which might even harm our health and sense of reality). In any case, do as little harm as possible also seems apathetic and vague. Who decides what is ‘as little as possible’? Does this change day-to-day, place-to-place and person-to-person? And how do we meaningfully measure harm? Such a moving target is not going to be a good guiding principle.
Perhaps then we should take things up a notch. Perhaps we should take a moral stance. Perhaps we should promote the well-being of things as our guiding idea, leaving them better off than before we took our picture. This at least might help mitigate any unintentional harmful effects our mere presence might cause! Our guiding principle would then be: “If I do x, will I leave my subject matter better off?” If the answer is “no”, then we should not do x; if the answer is “yes, I think so”, well then fire away!
Now, we could get hung up on the same problems as with the ‘do no harm’ idea: how do we measure ‘better off’? There really is no way to be absolutely sure, so part of being an ethical photographer must involve some amount of educated judgment. Note the term educated. Part of a code of ethics has to involve some obligation to inform ourselves and a commitment to doing our best. These at least move us in the right direction and keep us from being crippled on the couch with carby snacks and historical romances.
So we have our guiding principle: promote the well-being of the things we photograph. This necessarily includes doing our best at not harming things, and it also puts a positive obligation on us to engage with our subject matter in a way that makes it better off after our interaction with it. This might be as simple as inspiring public appreciation of the person, place or critter photographed. Or it might be as involved as a raising critical awareness through a life-long project to protect an endangered habitat. But by following our guiding principle of promote the well-being, we’re going to be on the right track. Also, actively thinking about your positive obligation in advance will make your decision a lot easier about whether to take the photo or not.
Nobody’s perfect. We both confess to actions in the past in the name of “I gotta get that shot”, that we now would not do. Maybe it’s maturity. Maybe we grew a conscience. What we do know is that we’ve been trying to follow this guiding principle of ‘promote the well-being’ for some time, and we can tell you we are more comfortable making our images and more proud of them.
By the way, if imposing a positive obligation on ourselves feels onerous, consider this: we don’t have a right to make a photograph. It’s a privilege. So let’s ensure we get to keep this privilege for ourselves and others by avoiding careless or ignorant behaviour. Photographers have been getting a bad name lately mostly because we all think we have the right to photograph anything, anytime and anywhere. We don’t. Let’s rise to a higher standard. Let’s set the bar above the level of ‘everyone else is doing it’. Let’s put our subject matter first and ourselves second. We bet that if we do this, our images will sing with sincerity and the photo industry will be a role model in the art world instead of its poorer second class citizen.
Enough of the grand theorizing. So what kinds of specific behaviours might our guiding principle of ‘promote the well-being…’ entail?
We’ve surveyed some photo organizations for their ethical codes (see below for links to some prominent groups – there weren’t many which says something right there), and the bulk of the actions can be distilled into three main areas: environment, social and self. We’ve summarized them and tried to put them in terms of positive actions. So here’s our proposed Code of Ethics:
This category involves the world around us, especially the natural world.
- Inform yourself and follow all rules and regulations when visiting a natural area or public attraction. These might include shooting distance to subjects and refraining from using certain kinds of artificial light or even photographing an animal or plant at all.
- Receive permission before stepping on to private property even if the property appears abandoned.
- Stay on designated paths and trails. If there is no trail, follow proper field etiquette by educating yourself on the principles of Leave No Trace.
- Aim for authenticity: photograph plants and animals in their natural habitat engaging in their natural behaviours.
- Research and inform yourself about the plants and animals you intend to photograph. Be aware of their distress signals, times of physical strain or breeding seasons, and avoid photographing plants and animals during these times. If you see any signs that your presence is causing stress, move back until the stress signals end or leave the area immediately.
- Leave the environment in a better way than you found it by picking up trash you find when in the field.
- Improve your photography composition skills by using your full arsenal of tools to make a great composition rather than moving objects, pulling plants or otherwise ‘tidying’ a scene for your composition.
- Move your position or patiently wait rather than attempt to influence an animal’s posture with catcalls, hoots or whistles.
- Remove all artificial attractants you find in wild places that were placed there by people to attract animals and refrain from baiting or placing attractants to entice wildlife to move to you. This is especially important with some large animals since they tend to be relocated or killed when they become habituated to humans.
- Refrain from sound baiting if its use may cause stress to the animal.
- With animals living in an urban environment such as songbirds, consider not putting out seeds as bait. If you do, research the proper natural organic food and follow proper procedures to ensure cleanliness of the feeder to minimize risk of disease. Place the feeder such that the birds will not be exposed to hazards such as predators under cover or at danger of flying into reflective house windows.
- Keep rare species safe and intact by not broadcasting the location of a fragile area, plant or animal. Remove GPS data from your images and refrain from sharing the location to others after the shoot.
- If by stopping to photograph, you are likely to start a chain reaction of other visitors crowding the area, do not stop but find another time or place to continue photographing.
This arena is about relationships with other people. So some sample situations are going to be interactions between photographer and client, photographer and tourists and photographer and photographer.
- Ask permission before photographing an identifiable person.
- Treat all people with respect.
- Treat your professional models with professional courtesy, repaying them with prints or fees for their work. Do not reimburse people where to do so would take advantage of their social or economic position or unduly influence them to pose for your picture.
- If you see someone violating the Code of Ethics, diplomatically attempt to educate them about the effects of their behaviour. If that person continues with their improper behaviour, document the situation and report them to the appropriate authorities.
- Be patient and courteous with non-photographers visiting a scene. Be creative by adjusting your expectations of the images you hoped to make and be open to new ideas as they present themselves.
- Be aware of your position and how it may interfere with the ability of the photographers and non-photographers around you to enjoy a scene.
- If someone inadvertently wanders into your scene, be courteous and wait if possible for them to move, adjust your own position, or kindly ask them to move their own when they are ready.
This category relates to how you personally internalize and live the Code of Ethics.
- Adopt a Code of Ethics and post it somewhere conspicuous to remind yourself to follow these important principles. Strive to adhere to the Code and commit to a lifelong education of these principles.
- Be an ambassador of ethical conduct in the industry through your own behaviour and by educating other photographers and the public about ethical photography.
- Know and respect your physical limitations and keep yourself out of harm’s way by avoiding situations where your health and safety or the health and safety of others could be put at risk because of your actions.
- Educate yourself about the weather, terrain, culture and possible hazards before visiting a new area.
- If you are leading a photo group, whether commercially or not, ensure that the group members are informed about the Code of Ethics, hazards and safety concerns and that the group size is appropriate to the sensitivity of the place you are visiting.
- Always be forthcoming about your processing and refrain from representing your photographs as something they are not.
Suggest a link to a good Code of Ethics in a comment on this post!