We have touched on the ethics of the personal and business side of photography under Professionalism. Here, however, we want to look at photographic ethics which differ between genres of photography. One of the key characteristics that sets you as a professional off from the flood of amateurs coming into the market, is the code of ethics by which you conduct your photography, and which gives your clients peace of mind.

In ethical terms, all photography can be simplistically divided into 2 categories: photographs and photo illustrations. If you identify each correctly, then you are on sound ethical grounds. If you present a photo illustration as a photograph, however, you could end your career prematurely.

Photo Illustration


Different genres of photography have different ethical standards. Because of its attempt to relate the world to the public in as accurate a manner as possible, editorial genres such as photojournalism and documentary photography, have the highest ethical standards for what qualifies as a legitimate photograph and what should be considered as a photo illustration. 

Wildlife photographers also have a stringent code of ethics along very similar lines to a photojournalist because they want to relate the reality of wildlife in its natural state. On the other extreme, creative genres such as advertising photography or fashion photography may draw little distinction between photography and photo illustration.

For you as a professional it is vital that you understand the more stringent ethical standards such as photojournalism and wildlife photography ethics. You need to know the rules first before you can safely decide to break them.

For editorial genres such as photojournalism and wildlife photography, the authenticity of the photograph begins with the photographer's interaction with the subject. The less the photographer interferes with the subject and the more compassionately she interacts, the more authentic the photograph. For this reason codes of ethics will expect photographers to influence the scene before them as little as possible and any interaction that there is to be done with empathy for the subject's circumstance.

Figure 1 Interview conducted by D J Clark with the Director of Drik photo agency in Bangladesh, Shahidul Alam, on ethics in photography. Shahidul concentrates on reportage or social documentary photography, a genre of photography where the ethical standards are very stringent. He speaks from that perspective.

Undue influencing of the subject or setting up a scene, even asking a subject to repeat what they have just done, moves the photograph into the realm of photo illustration. For this reason, photographers pursuing these genres need to be skilled at capturing action as it happens and placing themselves appropriately such that the action can be captured without unduly influencing the subject. This does not, however, apply to portrait photography. A photojournalist or documentary photographer may well utilize environmental portraits to tell the story. In this case you are directing the subject and this is allowed as this is a photographic cue that is well understood.

Once the photograph is captured, to maintain its authenticity as a photography and not a photo illustration, the code of ethics, in its strictest form, requires that the image is not manipulated, whether by cropping or flopping (turning it horizontally) or any other intervention. The only manipulation that is allowed is the enhancement of what is already there, along the lines of what was possible in the darkroom prior to the days of digital photography. This includes the removal of dust and scratches, colour correction, brightness and contrast, and burning and dodging. As soon as a photograph is manipulated in any other way, particularly in the removal of elements in the image or the introduction of elements that were not in the image, the image ceases to be a photograph and becomes a photo illustration.

When it is used in a layout, the ideal is that it is used in its entirety, but cropping is allowed to enable it to fit the space allocated, as long as it does not alter the visual meaning of the photograph. The image is also required to be published in context. That context is often provided by the caption or the related text or audio.

In this way, for a photograph to remain a photograph throughout the production process, high ethical standards need to be maintained at every stage, in your capturing of the image, in the post-production enhancement of the image by you or by your client, and in the layout of the image by your client. You may only have control over part of that process. As long as you have done your part ethically, you are likely to be exonerated. It would, however, be part of your professional duty to highlight any unethical usage by a client if you should become aware of it, whether to the client, your agent or to a professional body.

Here are some links to stringent codes of ethics that govern editorial genres of photography:

Photo Ethics: Aim High When You Shoot from Chitrabani, a Christian communication center in Calcutta, India

National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics

NPPA Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics

NANPA Principles of Ethical Field Practices

NANPA Truth in Captioning

Photo Illustration

Photo Illustration is what the creative genres of photography major in. Photo illustration is not unethical in itself. It is only when an image is presented as a photograph when in fact it is a photo illustration that an ethical problem arises. For many publications that major in the creative genres, this is not an issue. For editorial publications such as news magazines and newspapers, however, this is most certainly a problem. If you get it wrong, you stand to lose all future assignments and your reputation as a trusted professional.

Figure 1 A member of the Shutha team, Dominique Le Roux, photographed her dog Tyke on an iPhone using the Hipstamatic app. Strictly speaking, this image is in the realm of photo illustration because of the extent that reality has been altered. Because the alteration is so obvious and the subject matter is not serious, few would object to this being put out in the market as is without it being marked as a photo illustration. Having said that, it is always safer to note alterations that have been made in the metadata of the image. Dominique posted this on Flickr and noted in the caption that it was shot on an iPhone using the Hipstamatic app. That is good practice and protects her integrity as a photographer.

If you have manipulated the image in any way, one way to avoid an ethical problem down the line is to simply be very clear in the caption field of the metadata that you have manipulated the image and what you have done to it. If, for instance, you took a group of images of a scene and stitched them together as a panoramic, say that you have done that at the top of the caption field. This is only really an issue if you are aiming at editorial markets for your photography. Doing this allows the client to decide whether to use the image or not and whether to mark it as a photo illustration or not.