Musings on Photography

Photographer’s rights/Photographer’s responsibilities

Posted in ethics by Paul Butzi on February 8, 2007

Some little while back I wrote on The Photos to Not Take, taking the view that as photographers we need to be mindful of the impact our photography has.  That post generated a lot of traffic, a fair number of comments, and quite a lot of email.

And since then, I’ve been thinking about the balance between our rights as photographers and our responsibilities.  As a photographer and more generally as an interested US citizen, I’ve naturally got an eye out to make sure that my rights aren’t eroded.  But I also recognize that with rights come responsibilities, and I have to say that while there’s a lot of discussion of photographer’s rights, I don’t see any discussion of the concomitant responsibilities.  Try this experiment: go to google, and search for “photographer’s rights”.  When I did it, I got 20,200 hits, with the first hit being Bert Krages’s famous web page with the one page summary you can print out and stick in your camera bag.  Ok, now that you’ve done that, and browsed some of those sites, and come back here, go to google and search for “photographer’s responsibilities”.  I got 88 hits, and virtually ALL of them are discussing the responsibilies of photographers not in the social sense but in the context of contracts.

It seems to me like the ratio of 230:1 is a little lopsided.  Maybe it’s past time for photographers to expend a little effort on thinking about the responsibility side of their relationship to the culture and society they live in.

What do I mean by that?  Lots of things.  I think that when we’re out with the camera, making photographs, we need to take on the burden of being responsible, not just in the sense of not breaking the law (by damaging things, say, or trespassing) but also in the sense of understanding how our actions affect things.  If you want to photograph a church, and there’s a risk that standing on the street and making exposures is going to stress people out, is it really that much of a burden to go inside, talk to the church staff, show them a portfolio, and explain that you’re just a harmless photographer building a portfolio?  And, before everyone starts posting comments accusing me of favoring censorship, let me state plainly that I’m not advocating for legal requirements, here.  I’m advocating for photographer CHOOSING to act responsibly.  You have a legal right to stand in a public right of way and photograph the church.  In the case where exercising that right will have a negative impact, you have a social responsibility to take the steps to mitigate that impact.  

But beyond the sort of damage control stuff, we should be looking for ways to make our photography be a positive thing for the communities and environments in which we photograph.   Here’s a great example – check out this post on Doug Plummer’s blog.  In it, Doug describes his interaction with the regulars and workers at a little cafe – taking a photograph one day, then bringing a print the next day.  It’s just a little thing, especially for folks who work digitally – dropping off a print.  But the positive impact of Doug’s interaction will last a long time.  I’ll bet that print will get taped to the wall, and enjoyed daily for a long time.  I’ll bet that the next time a photographer walks in with a camera over her shoulder, she’ll benefit from Doug’s positive example. 

Good on Doug.  We should all follow his example.

7 Responses

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  1. Dennis Mook said, on February 8, 2007 at 10:26 am

    I photographed railroads for years, especially steam engines. I developed the habit of talking to the person in charge to get permission since railroad property is private, then taking a photo or two with me the next time to give to them. Not only were they receptive, they opened doors and gave permissions to me that otherwise would never have been allowed. I agree. Take the extra step as it most likely will pay dividends.

  2. Rosie Perera said, on February 8, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Good thoughts, Paul. Maybe the reason you only found 88 hits was you were Googling for a contrived phrase which is not what people would usually use when they talk about the opposite of photographers’ rights. Try “photography” + “social consciousness” and you’ll get 60,000 hits. Most of these (at least if my survey of the first two pages worth of hits is any indication of the ratio) are not just accidental juxtapositions of those two searchh terms, but really do concern the combination of photography AND social consciousness. Another common phrase is “social photography” — though you’ve got to weed out the sites that are about weddings and such, there are a significant number (in the tens of thousands apparently) which are about the use of photography for social justice, environmental protection, etc. The tradition of using photography to make a difference in the world goes way back to the early history of the medium and is stronger than ever today, according to Jay Mallin’s article “Saving the World…One Photo at a Time” in Popular Photography & Imaging:
    I find this way of thinking more inspirational and encouraging than talking about “photographers’ responsibilities.” The latter (especially in the context of your discussion that went with it) seems more of a duty, a burden, a guilt trip, or a stern finger-shaking, not a joyful, positive sense of calling as a photographer. One can and certainly should keep in mind one’s responsibility as a photographer to “do no harm” — i.e., to steward the natural world, and to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. But as a primary motivation to do good in the world with our photography, I don’t think it’s enough. (Not that you were saying it is. I’m just expanding on your comments.)

  3. Martin Doonan said, on February 9, 2007 at 1:34 am

    My initial reaction to your thoughts is you could so easily replace “photographer” with “person” in this context. There seems to be too much demand/exercise of rights from people these days without thought for others.

    I’ve been thinking further about this quite a lot overnight. it seems to me that rights are conferred in a spirit of trust and expectation reasonableness: i.e. we are allowed to do things on the basis that we know when to stop.

    Maybe it’s a symptom of the comfort and freedom we enjoy. If one wakes up merely glad to be alive, there is less time to think about demanding or exercising such rights. Progress, I suppose.

  4. QT Luong said, on February 15, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Well, this is just human nature, and not limited to photography. See this link:

  5. emonome | Taking Photos: Know Your Rights said, on September 19, 2007 at 9:44 pm

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