Morality and Ethics in Photography

Are there any “ultimate” morals or ethics when it comes to photography? I think not. 

Do you feel guilty when shooting street photography? 

A lot of street photographers think they’re afraid of shooting street photography, but in reality, they just feel guilt for shooting street photography. 

Why? Perhaps the fear that you’re just “taking advantage” of other people to further your own photography.

But is this claim true and warranted? 

If we are really honest with ourselves, of course we use other people to advance our photographic artistry. If you shoot street photos of people, of course you’re using the people to make compelling images. And that’s okay!

Now this is a deeper question I’m interested in:

Does it make a difference whether you’re photographing someone poorer or weaker than you, versus photographing someone who is more powerful or richer than you? 

This is what I think makes my SUITS project so compelling; because I’m photographing men in suits who are probably far richer than me. This is certainly different from photographing homeless people or drug addicted people on the streets.

But then again let us consider the ethics. 

By separating people as “poorer” than you or “richer” than you, you’re already making a judgment on the other person. 

For example, let us say you don’t like to photograph homeless people because that is “taking advantage of them.” But technically by saying that, you’re saying “I am superior to them.”

And perhaps you only feel comfortable photographing “normal” people. But who is to decide who is “normal” or not? Should we look at homeless people as helpless?

Technically if we were truly “ethical”, we should treat homeless people as equal to someone wearing a rolex. 

So in short, if you want to treat everyone “equally”, shoot everyone without prejudice towards how they look. 

In other words, 

Don’t feel guilty photographing poor people, homeless people, or drug addicted people. Because technically, they’re as human as me and you. 

For myself, I feel equal compassion for all peoples; regardless of how rich or poor they are. Because in fact, there are a lot of very rich people who suffer more than “poor” people.

“Poverty” isn’t always so bad. 

I still have fond memories of when my mom, my sister, and I lived inside a basement in College Point, New York when I was around 9 years old, with no furniture, no TV, no anything. I went to the library everyday with my sister to pick up books, and I was super happy! I didn’t know we were “poor”; my friends in school were surprised to hear that we didn’t own a TV.

And it was really nice; it was probably the closest I’ve been with my mom and sister. We all slept on the floor, together on one futon, and I slept deeply.

On the contrary, consider the billionaire who cannot sleep at night, because they’re anxious that they’re going to lose their money. Or that someone might kidnap their kids. Or the fear of their personal safety and life (robbers and hit men).

Biologically, we have pretty similar wiring. We all have similar physiological attributes, in terms of how cortisol, and other negative stress hormones excrete into our blood stream. The stress that a billionaire has on losing $100 million dollars might be worse than a poor person losing $100 dollars.

Amoral photography

Anyways I’m getting off topic, but here are some propositions I have:

  1. There are no ultimately “right” or “wrong” ethics or morals that apply to everyone equally. 
  2. Don’t feel any guilt shooting street photography. If we consider all peoples are equal, we should photograph a person in a suit equally as a homeless person. 
  3. Seek to understand why you feel guilt or shame doing certain things. Were you taught these morals by your teachers, parents, on TV, in books, at church, or somewhere else? Also, have you ever had the opportunity to question the morals and ethics you’ve been taught as a child? Question everything

Shoot on!