Photographic ethics


Ethics is the set of criteria that allow the individual to manage, within specific boundaries, on a rational and non-emotional basis, their freedom while respecting others. In this narrow meaning, ethics is synonymous with moral philosophy, or a compendium of the moral values ​​that determine man's behavior. The foundation of human social relationships is based on the Christian principle that reads: love your neighbor as yourself, or do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you and again, your freedom ends where mine begins. Having determined the discussion platform, first of all it is necessary to ask the following question: who are we and who are the others? We must try to understand what relationship may exist between ourselves and our neighbor, in order to delimit our sphere of freedom within limits that do not harm the autonomy of others. The answer is simple. There is no relationship between us and the others, because we and the others are the same thing. We are mirror-like entities. We differ only in the point of view from which we observe ourselves and so when We (observers) look at the Others (observed), we see exactly what the Others (now observers) see in Us (now observed). And then, if we love ourselves, we must love others with the same intensity and not commit negative acts towards them. In all fields of knowledge and its applications, not excluding photography, ethics has its role. It arises with human activities, is omnipresent, and tends to guide their behavior within societies, calling into question those feelings that are generally defined as universal, such as love, friendship, brotherhood and more. On a daily basis, however, we detect the indiscriminate use of the media which are more functional to commercial powers than to those values ​​mentioned above and if we accept photography as an effective and relevant tool for disseminating information, we must, in spite of ourselves, accept it, or better still undergo, its exploitation.

There has always been a debate on whether it is right and if so, to what extent a person can be photographically portrayed, without compromising his individual dignity and above all without altering, through ambiguous shots, the spiritual essence of the subject portrayed. The debate takes on more expressive and decisive tones when it refers to photographs that portray suffering or even dead people. In these extreme cases, the observance of rigorous ethical behavior is essential and necessary. In his book La Chambre Claire, Roland Barthes considers photography as the result of three distinct elements, representing the foundations of photographic art, which are: the operator, the spectator, the portrayed subject, but above all places the accent on the second element, or rather on the viewer who basically has two ways of reading a photograph: the rational aspect and the emotional one. The rational aspect consists in finding general information in the photograph, such as the composition, the objects-subjects represented, while in the emotional one the observer is captured by particular details of the composition that trigger emotional storms in his soul. And it is precisely on this last aspect that the social and ethical value of the shot is determined, because photography cannot be used as a source of information that does not pose problems, as John Tagg asserts in his The burden of representation, essays on photographies and histories. In observing a photograph, we must ask ourselves how we arrived at that representation, what are the causes that determined it, because photography does not communicate pre-existing and self-defined realities. In summary, in photography one should not seek the mere testimony of what it shows, but the reasons that led it to exist in the way it is proposed to us. Therese Frare, a young journalism student at the University of Ohio, a gay rights activist, chose to do an AIDS photo report for her academic project and was granted permission to photograph on her deathbed while embraced. from his father breathed his last, David Kirby, activist in the AIDS awareness campaign, hospitalized at Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus, suffering from terminal HIV syndrome.

The B / W photo of Therese Frare is ethically correct as it assumes the precise role for which it was taken, fulfilling the function of questioning the reasons for the incident, as John Tagg teaches. The intention of the Frare, in fact, was to bring the rampant and uncontrolled social upheaval resulting from the HIV syndrome to the eyes of the world and the mass media, and the photograph of Kirby dying has done the job very well. In the intentions of the photographer, the shot had to have the precise purpose of unleashing, together with the sense of pity, the idea of ​​danger, of the immanence of the tragedy and exorcising AIDS from the shackles of the collective imagination, which create fears, feelings of guilt. and inevitability, prejudices that substantially hinder the search for the true genesis of the syndrome, inevitably slowing down the race towards the solution of the problem, a concept widely exposed in Susan Sontag's AIDS and its metaphor. Arthur Cravan, a Dadaist poet, said that every artist must have a sense of provocation in himself and in this specific case Therese Frare is perfect, flawless and elegant and finally "through photography we leave the collective imagination, to enter a more penetrating reality and the real problem is fitting, because the event, having been photographed, has become real and therefore news even in the eyes of those who are elsewhere " (Susan Sontag in On Photography). The camera is a mechanical means that offers great possibilities for expression. In modern digital cameras, there are programs with default settings, designed for particular shots, which, for the accuracy of the result, almost all photographers use, adopting the most suitable ones, depending on the case. But the camera is an eye that looks coldly, without emotion, without discernment, whatever stands in front of it and whether it is necessary to film the explosion of a bomb, with the sparkle of lights and the curtains of smoke that the explosion will cause, since in no camera is such a possibility foreseen, the photographer will use the fireworks setting and thus the dramatic scene of a bomb explosion will be shot as if it were a joyful and folkloristic event.

In this case, the photographer does not ask himself the problem of the technical means to celebrate the event and even if the purpose is subverted with respect to the technique used, the result is achieved. This inversion of intent is common in the world of photography and a click is often used to convey a message that is absolutely not implicit in the image. It is the typical case in which, for professional ethics, one should ask oneself if this is ethically correct. This elementary question is certainly not posed by Oliviero Toscani, a man of photography and communication of international fame, who has built his professional fortune by creating advertising campaigns for the Benetton clothing company, with shocking photographs, denouncing various social problems. nature, which due to their crudeness required to be looked at, but which in reality had the sole function of capturing the observer's attention, being inserted in contexts not relevant to the images, but concerning the advertising campaigns of the United Colors of Benetton brand, according to a very specific brand management, technique of manipulation and plagiarism, unfortunately often adopted by advertising, whose purpose is to ensnare the observer, to whom, once he has been forced to observe, he will show everything that you want.

David Kirby on his deathbed photographed by Therese Frare

The strength of photography is in its invasiveness, in its being present in the most varied situations, to the point of becoming essential in the configuration of modern society which now uses more images than words. Fred Ritchin, in After photography examines the countless aspects through which the digital image has forcefully entered our life, being able to modify a shot as we wish, so as to make it complementary and supportive to a dissertation, which originally has nothing in common. itself of the subject dealt with and when in 1992 Oliviero Toscani and Tibor Kalman, creators of advertising campaigns for Benetton, adopted the photograph of Kirby's death, they artificially colored it, for the precise occasion (United colors of Benetton), affixing the green logo company and used it, transversally, for advertising purposes, contravening the basic rules of ethics, which, even if unwritten, tacitly require that the death of a man be a purely private fact and should not be exploited commercially, transforming it into a sordid profit-making object.

David Kirby on his deathbed in the photo colored and manipulated by Oliviero Toscani and Tibor Kalman

Suffering and even more death require respect and dignity, which must also be extended to relatives and to all other people who experience the harshness of the drama that is unfolding. Not taking these considerations into account means diminishing or even making fun of human pain. In this case, the patient's family gave their consent to the publication, declaring that the loved one in his capacity as an activist, dead, would have attracted more attention than alive and his condition as a sufferer would perhaps have torn the misty veil a little. of disinformation and disinterest in what was called the plague of the twentieth century and then, since there is full awareness on the part of the subject portrayed, of the final use of the shot, it would seem that there is no infringement of individual rights to privacy. However, the common ethical sense leads to define this condescension, almost a connivance and therefore reprehensible, for having performed such an act, because the individual does not belong entirely to himself, but is part of a larger entity that is the human race and from this point of view it has the duty to live and die in deference and compliance with the moral norms of the human consortium. Hence, the violation of individual rights becomes, at the same time, a violation of human rights in a general sense and the offense is inflicted not only on the single individual, but extended to all men, because the commodification of the highest existential assumptions , of which death is the most prominent element is decidedly execrable and strident in contact with the elementary bases of ethics which require, at the time of passing, discretion, intellectual reserve and total spiritual concentration, being the only, unrepeatable moment and in some cases representative of a whole past life.

A death whose dignity is stolen and whose meaning is distorted can erase all that has been good in the course of a life. In the photo, the subject of this dissertation, the sense of fierce criticism for having attacked fundamental ethical principles and creating an atmosphere of doubt and bewilderment, was almost universally recognized, in fact, most of the media to which the photo was offered, he refused the publication and the few newspapers that accepted it managed to unleash an avalanche of protests, so much so that the advertising campaign entered the Guinness Book of Records, as the most controversial advertising campaign ever. However, Toscani and Kalman got what they were looking for, because the uproar that photography caused was worldwide and Machiavellian, the goal was achieved. Moreover, in The picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes the famous sentence: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about". Silence is always more harmful than speaking, no doubt! In conclusion, it will be said that the principles that determine a photographer's professional ethics are not linked to the images produced, but must be ascribed to the use made of them. Every human act potentially contains in itself every possible interpretation and ethical involvement. Nothing in itself is immoral, nothing is contrary to spiritual principles. It is our sense of discernment that creates the divide between right and wrong, between right and wrong. Immoral and contrary to ethics is to try to manipulate our capacity for judgment, misleading ourselves on improper paths in achieving an autonomous conceptual synthesis, not determined by external conditioning and the bare minimum we can ethically strive for is to activate a healthy and responsible behavior. critical of who or what is photographed.

Sources Roland Barthes - La chambre claire John Tagg - The burden of representation, essays on photographies and histories Susan Sontag - AIDS and its metaphor Susan Sontag - On photography Fred Ritchin - After photography

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