Building a Code of Ethics

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.

JackRussel terrier with tennis ball

Baiting…is it cruel?  😉

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.

Most of us photograph the things we love!

Most of us photograph the things we love!

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!

There is a price to pay for harm.

There is a price to pay for harm.

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!

Can we actually ever do 'no harm'?

Can we actually ever do ‘no harm’ and how can we measure the harm done?

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!

Will our actions leave the dog better or worse off?

Will our actions leave the dog better or worse off? What is the purpose of making this photo?

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.

Inaction is an action!

Inaction is an action!

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.

How can our pictures add good to the world?

How can our pictures add good to the world?

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:

Code of ethics includes stay on the trail!

Code of ethics includes stay on the trail!

Environment

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.
Keep your distant from wildlife as designated by regulations in the area you are visiting. ©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

Keep your distance from wildlife as designated by regulations in the area you are visiting.

Social

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.
Be respectful of other's privacy and space when deciding where to set up your photograph.

Be respectful of others’ privacy and space when deciding where to set up your photograph.

Self

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.
Respect, care and sensitivity to your subject will result in more personal and evocative images.

Respect for, care of and sensitivity to your subject will result in more personal and evocative images.

What steps will you take to be an ethical photographer?

What steps will you take to be an ethical photographer?

Links

Nature Photographers Network

Professional Photographers of Canada

National Press Photographers Association

American Society of Media Photographers

The Royal Photographic Society

Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography

Suggest a link to a good Code of Ethics in a comment on this post!

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

21 Comments

  1. Michael Hill
    February 10, 2016

    Thanks for this well written and informative piece … I think it behooves all of us to behave ethically and with the greatest respect to both the environment and to others when photographing. I wonder though about the tenet proposed that states we must “ask permission before photographing an identifiable person.” Have you not just eliminated virtually all of what we call ‘street photography’ by mandating that all persons identifiable in a photo must give permission before you can take the photo?

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 10, 2016

      We know a couple of ‘street photographers’ who always ask permission (sometimes by just smiling and pointing to the camera) before they take pictures. Is street photography only valid if those we photograph are unawares?

  2. David Lilly
    February 10, 2016

    Hi Darwin,

    Your code of ethics is a good guide, however so is the Bible.

    No-one will follow these ethics, as I have seen many times. People will do want they want period.

    It is unfortunate but this is the way of the world.

    Reply
  3. John Marriott
    February 10, 2016

    David, that’s a laissez-faire way of looking at things, if I lived my life based on what everyone else is doing, then I’d eat at McDonald’s every day and throw litter on the streets on my way home to my mansion in my Hummer. I most certainly wouldn’t be taking photographs with an eye to the beauty of the natural world. This piece is meant for each and every one of us to examine our OWN Code of Ethics, and bit by bit, one by one, we CAN change the world.

    Reply
    • Luc Lemieux
      February 10, 2016

      John I couldn’t agree more with you. I have just sent in a comment in which I recommend the reading of the interview between you and Darwin about ethics. Great article from great photographers. Cheers!!

  4. Branimir Gjetvaj
    February 10, 2016

    Here is another excellent source of ethical standards we could (should?) try to incorporate in our photography endeavours: International League of Conservation Photographer’s Code of Ethics:

    http://conservationphotographers.org/about-us/mission-ethics

    I had a short but heated debate with a well-known Canadian photographer who was leading a photography tours to photograph captive animals. His argument was that because he was a “well known, professional photographer with many years of experience” he had a moral right to utilize (and support) game farms. Very hollow.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 11, 2016

      Hi Branimir,

      We know all about the ILCP and it seems great in theory. In practice though things may not appear as they seem. We have had the opportunity to shoot beside two of ICLP’s honoured ‘senior fellows’ (and huge name photographers). These two photographers pushed birds off the nest, got closer to animals than regulations allowed, interrupted natural behavior patterns of animals, got in the way of other photographers and generally behaved poorly in order to get their shots or to get their clients the shots. Very distasteful. Just because you are a member of a society that encourages ethical behavior, does not mean it will happen. We are all responsible for thinking and acting for ourselves. We encourage all photographers to adopt ethical guidelines and try to actually follow them.

  5. Ron Duckworth
    February 10, 2016

    Here is a link to the North American Nature Photographers Association Code of Ethics.

    Reply
  6. Ron Duckworth
    February 10, 2016

    Here is a link to the North American Nature Photographers Association Code of Ethics. https://www.nanpa.org/docs/NANPA-Ethical-Practices.pdf

    Reply
  7. Drake
    February 10, 2016

    I was pleased to see Oopoomoo shedding more light on the issue of Ethics in photography and developing quite a detailed Code. Recently I saw an online post by a Canadian photographer that appeared to encourage what I felt was unethical behaviour by discussing how he will go around fences and past signs designed to keep people out of the area. He also posed a question asking if others did the same. There followed a discussion on the ethics of this and he appeared to backtrack somewhat, although I still was disappointed that he would not only engage in this behaviour, but also post it online where others may be influenced by it. One good thing that came out of this was that it raised awareness of ethical issues in photography and most people who were commenting seemed to agree this was over the ethical line.

    All that said, I have been thinking more about ethical issues in photography, lately, and it is an issue I plan on bringing up with my local photo club. The more people are educated and aware of these issues, the better it will be for all photographers.

    Thanks for another great post!

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      February 10, 2016

      Thanks for sharing, Drake. No one is perfect, but we must try to do better. I would be so stoked if photographers set the bar high with their conduct instead of what I sometimes see which is pretty entitled attitudes!

  8. Luc Lemieux
    February 10, 2016

    As A Scouts Canada leader I would suggest one of the Values of Scouting.
    The Duty to Others: Defined as, The responsibility to one’s local, national and global community members to promote peace, understanding and cooperation, through participation in the development of society, respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-beings, and protection of the integrity of the natural world. We also recommend to our Scouts ;
    – a review the “Leave no trace Canada” web site. It is surely a good place to start for anyone spending time in nature. (http://www.leavenotrace.ca/home)to our Scouts

    But being a birder and photographer, I also adhere to the following codes, to name but a couple;

    – the Ontario Bird watchers Code of Conduct
    (http://www.ofnc.ca/birding/Code-of-Conduct.pdf)
    – in my home province Québec, the bird watchers association has published its own code as well;
    (http://quebecoiseaux.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=83&Itemid=111)

    Birders in Canada sometimes forget that seeing this uncommon or rare bird, means to respect and care for the natural environment. Years ago birders were so eager photograph and to tick off this rare species on their life list, they gathered in the hundreds to find it. Someone did find it, it had been squashed by the hundreds of eager but careless birders and photographers. Let’s ensure this does not happen while you’re out there take pictures.
    This comment would not be complete without recommending reading the interview between Darwin and John Marriott. It’s a must.
    https://darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/tag/ethics-in-photography/
    With what’s available on the web presently, it is inconceivable that any serious photographer does not adhere to any of these codes or worst, is not aware. It’s simply basic common sense and respect for those whose environment and habitat we share. Happy and careful shooting!!

    Reply
  9. Fred Monk
    February 10, 2016

    Thanks for this much needed discussion. I would summarize the whole code by suggesting “do unto others…” I would not be happy to know that someone entered my property to photograph anything… no matter how interested it appeared.. I would be upset to know that someone was taking photographs of me without my knowledge or permission. Why would anyone of us think that because we have a camera that common sense and common courtesy does not apply to us? I agree totally with the code of ethics you present here.

    Reply
  10. Sarah Marino
    February 10, 2016

    I have written about these same topics on my own blog so they are obviously important to me but this post has me thinking about my own behavior. The idea of promoting the well-being of the things we photograph is a high bar, especially for any photographer who regularly photographs in wild places where no trails exist. Your approach to this topic is thought-provoking, appreciated, and so desperately needed in this field.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      February 10, 2016

      Hi Sarah, it is a high bar indeed, and many might say it is too hard to measure. I think we have to try though to do our best – it is society which will measure whether we pass or fail.

  11. Kat
    February 10, 2016

    It may also be useful to refer to existing codes of ethics. Most professions have a code if they have a college, and rules, applied to provincial or federal legislation. The rules are enforced and miscreants can be disciplined. As photographers we have no legally recognized college or legislation, but as citizens we are subject to law inluding civil law. So i would have started with existing law, and state that the law wrt copyright, privacy, personal property etc are just as worthy of respect as prevention of harm to subjects, habitat, populations, individuals. Respecting the ownership of photographs isnt mentioned and perhaps should be.

    Reply
  12. Jens
    February 13, 2016

    Hello,

    This is a very important blog post, that I hope many photographers will read. I often find myself reflecting on my own actions and those of others when I’m out exploring the natural world with my camera. There are a few things that I would like to share:

    I have a problem with game farms where large animals are posed so a group of photographers can take some pictures. I can always tell the difference between a photo of an animal in the wild and a captive one, but I think many people can not. I remember seeing a picture of a cougar leaping from one side of a small gully to the other, it was clear to me it was a photo of a game farm animal, but many people would think what an amazing photographer and incredible photo. I have heard the argument put forward that the game farm animals might actually serve a purpose, in that if people are taking photos of animals in captivity then they aren’t bothering animals in the wild. I disagree with this, no one ever seems to show much concern for the captive animals welfare and we shouldn’t keep beautiful animals in captivity for profit or because it’s convenient for us to take a photo. in the photos the captive animals are often over weight, flabby and their fur or coat looks dirty and unhealthy.

    When I visited Iceland there was a great newspaper called ‘The Reykjavik Grapevine’. They did a story about a couple who visited many of Iceland’s natural wonders. Where ever they went they picked up garbage and did this throughout their trip. The story really resonated with me. How easy is it to carry a ziplock bag with you and when you are out photographing to pick up some garbage? Imagine if more people did this? It is an easy way to give something back. At Jokulsarlon thousands of Arctic Terns nest right next to the lagoon. I watched people drive their camper vans and motorhomes right through their nesting grounds because all the birds would fly up and it made for a great picture on their cellphone. I had dreamed of visiting Jokulsarlon, but I had to leave after only a short period of time, I couldn’t bear to watch the way these birds who migrate from Antarctica were being treated.

    I watched a video of a famous photography couple from the USA, who were talking about photography at Peyto Lake in Banff National Park. Because I grew up in the area and was very familiar with this location, I could see that they were off the trail and in an area that is very sensitive to erosion. They made it look like they had hiked up this mountain, when in reality it was a few hundred metres from the parking lot and just off the asphalt trail. They didn’t seem very concerned about their environmental impact in a national park. It was very disappointing to see.

    I often see pictures of bad eagles swooping down on the water to pick something up on the surface with their talons. It is clear these photos are taken from a boat and I think chum is put in the ocean or lake to lure these amazing birds in close for a photo. I’m not sure what can be done, I do know that people’s behaviour is not improving.

    Reply
  13. Of Interest for February 13, 2016
    February 13, 2016

    […] Building a Code of Ethics […]

    Reply
  14. March blog fun. | Flowery Prose
    March 1, 2016

    […] you’re a photographer – amateur or professional – this article about ethics might get the brain juices flowing.  How we treat our subjects and the environment is incredibly […]

    Reply
  15. George
    March 3, 2016

    I use to carry some florist’s wire in my camera bag. If I was trying to photograph a small flower and some grass were in the way I’d use the wire to hold it out of the way. After getting my shot(s), I’d remove the wire to allow the grass to move back in place.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Top