One topic that has frequently been on my mind is the ethics code among photographers. Does a code actually exist, or is it a figment of a photographer’s imagination? Or perhaps, is it my imagination solely?
As human beings, we each have our own codes and regulations that guide our behavior, and determine what we believe is fantastic, acceptable, unacceptable, or loathsome. When we are in groups with people who share our similar interests, sometimes the group develops or formulates a code that represents the group as a whole. Such a code could be a mission statement, motto, creed, or principle.
I often like to think photographers — especially professional photographers — have a code they follow among one another. For example, when shooting a dynamic sunset or captivating event, professional photographers typically give each other some space and do their best not to obstruct the other’s view. This is more about etiquette than code, I suppose. I know I would not like someone to interrupt my operations when I’m trying to create an image from a moment, so I try to make sure I would not impede on another photographer’s efforts. I am a tremendous fan of courtesy, so if someone asks me to please move because I am obstructing her view, I am happy to do so. People forget the power of being polite. The words “please” and “thank you” carry their weight in charm and gold. (The Looney Toones characters in the video below emphasize this point well).
The following are three different examples of code that I have in mind when it comes to the art of photography.
1) Bowie the Bountyphotographer
When I was visiting one particular city for a photo tour, I met a fellow photographer. We’ll call him Bowie Bokeh for this story. We had met to hopefully capture some mesmerizing cityscapes during the blue hour, but the quicker the sun sank below the horizon, the sooner we realized that we would not get the ideal images we had envisioned. The vantage where we were located was on a local road in a residential neighborhood. When we decided to give up on the current vantage, I said I was going to return to the city for some night shots. Bowie said he was going to keep on exploring the neighborhood for some new views. I remarked that there were not that many open spaces given all the private residences. Bowie turned to me and said he was indifferent to this. If he had to go into someone’s backyard, he would do so. I thought he was joking, but he was quite serious, and when I asked, he said he had broken into people’s backyards to get the view he wanted to capture on camera — many times. Bowie looked at me and said, “You do what you have to do to get the shot.”
Personally, I do not agree with this point of view under these circumstances, and I was rather disappointed in Bowie. I understand that when an opportunity presents itself, one has a choice whether to grab it or evade it. However, I do think there are limits. Bowie didn’t really seem to think what he was doing was causing any harm, and truthfully, he wasn’t for his own intents and purposes. However, he wasn’t thinking of the bigger picture at large: that his actions were illegal and could have serious consequences. He’s an adventurous photographer willing to take some risks to get “the shot”. He’s definitely not the only one. I just don’t think I could ever enter a stranger’s backyard or garden to achieve my own goals in photography. Such a tactic commands a high degree of selfishness and considerable disrespect to whomever’s property upon which one is treading unbeknownst to the owners. There is also the element of risk. What if Bowie gets caught by the property owner, or a neighbor? My guess was, with Bowie’s confidence and determination, that had never happened, so he had the motivation to continue doing what he had to do to get “the shot.”
If the view that needs to be captured is that phenomenal, and there are absolutely no alternatives available, would it not show better etiquette to ring the doorbell of the residence and explain one’s situation instead of just breaking and entering onto the premises? Perhaps this is too idealistic.
I didn’t stay around to see if Bowie would be successful in his ventures. I went back to my business of exploring the city and taking shots from places where I had every right to take a photograph if I desired to do so.
Photographers often complain about security guards taking their jobs too seriously when they see us trying to get a photo from the top level of a parking garage or empty lot where there is clearly no one around. As a result, many security guards develop a reputation as being unfriendly, ignorant, or taking their jobs entirely too seriously. I think, in the case of Bowie, photographers do not realize that we, too, develop a reputation when we overstep our bounds. Sometimes, just carrying all the photography gear in public generates suspicion among others. I always try to be mindful of this.
2) Unoriginal Orson
Some photographers are very artistic and strive to get an atypical point of view, or capture a very familiar scene in a very unusual fashion. Other photographers see these images and tend to inquire from the original photographer about when, how, and where the special photo was achieved. Sometimes these questions are asked out of curiosity, but other times, it’s typically because the person asking wants to do something very similar. Different photographers clearly have different resources, but I am wary of the photographers who intend to simply duplicate the hard work that was invested by another without trying to add their own flair or twist on the subject matter. There’s a level of laziness about this behavior that I don’t necessarily admire.
I often come across this scenario when I post images on Flickr. One of the most irritating examples occurred when I was still very new to Flickr and wasn’t aware of all its functions and the culture that exists there. I was happy to receive comments on my images and questions from anyone and everyone. This was about four years ago. Today, I can safely say I have grown wiser over the years about how to reveal information about my images — rather, how much information to reveal.
In 2009, I once shared a cityscape of Bellevue, a major suburb of Seattle (and arguably, its own city). I had given it a creative title to spark the interest of my audience. Another local photographer — we’ll call him Orson Aperture — sent me a message saying he liked the photo and inquired from where I took the photo. I thought Orson was being friendly with his compliment and, in return, I would be a good sport and tell him the location, which took me some effort to find myself. This photographer was polite, but I didn’t like what he did with the information I shared. Not only did Orson go to the exact same place to get the same photo of the Bellevue cityscape (I didn’t really have an issue with that necessarily since I was the one who told him the location), but he uploaded the photo on Flickr and gave it an identical title to my photograph of Bellevue. That annoyed me because it occurred so soon after I shared my details with him. I thought I was trying to help him, and I suppose I did in a way that I certainly did not intend. Orson could have, at the very least, given the photo his own title, and taken it one step further by acknowledging that he did get some help for achieving the image.
When a member posts a new image to Flickr, he or she has the capability to identify the geographic location from where the photo was taken on an internet map (similar to what you see on Yahoo! Maps or Google Maps). It’s very informative for fellow photographers who wish to capture a similar image, but I also feel it makes photographers presumptuous that others will just willingly share — or must share — their locations, which should not be the case. There should be no obligation, and I see many Flickr members do not share this information, and they should not have to for reasons like our lazy friend, Unoriginal Orson.
3) Adam & Adele Acknowledge. . .
Many photographers have very good intentions and are not ashamed to admit when they had assistance from someone else, or received inspiration from another photographer or individual. Many of the photographers whose work I admire can name many people who have influenced their own work. Many of you know their names: Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange, Steve McCurry, etc. The list of people who inspire photographers can be endless.
There is dignity and respect for the photographer who gives credit where credit is due. Some photographers who share certain images graciously state that their inspiration came from another photographer who has a very similar image, but with a different flair or unique style about it. I also see this on Flickr and other social media, but in an age where many believe digital photography is “unoriginal” (which I do not agree with, per se), it is reassuring to see the photographers who practice the code of giving credit to their influences or inspiration, be it another photographer, a family member, a friend, a stranger, or an unforgettable experience — but especially to another photographer.
Giving respect and homage are not negligible traits. I’m not saying a photographer should announce their inspirations or influences for each and every photo she shares, but for particular images where it’s clear that help or guidance was needed, it’s a good code to practice. Personally, I like to give credit where it is due with my photography. I would not be able to do what I do without other people’s help, encouragement, support, or guidance. It’s healthy to acknowledge such things, and pay them forward. Give credit where it’s due. Acknowledge those who have helped you achieve. If you’re going to break into someone’s backyard to get your shot, perhaps give thanks to the property owners who may have seen you and didn’t call the police or shoot you down (with a gun this time, not a camera) because you left as soon as you came.
Again, perhaps I’m being too idealistic.
I believe there should be some work invested, especially by professional photographers, when it comes to featuring or marketing their own brand or style of photography. Arguably, one can say most images are no longer original, or that everything has been done at some point already. That may be valid, but it doesn’t stop artists from creating or recreating. I suppose that means a photographer should try to be resourceful on his or her own, and if he or she is really stuck or cannot figure out how to be as original as possible on their own, then ask for help, but don’t duplicate another photographer’s work and present it as though you invested so much effort into it without counsel.
There are arguments for and against revealing one’s “trade secrets” when it comes to photography. Naturally, one may reveal secrets with people one really likes or trust, but never to a stranger. Others believe that everyone should have access to everything, so they broadcast their secrets in their blogs or other social media. That is their right and choice to do so. However, the opposite is also true that photographers have the right and choice not to reveal his or her secrets when it comes to creating a magical image. Although professional photographers can be friends, if they are both running their own businesses in the industry, they are also competitors for the same market, especially if they’re specialized subject matter is similar. Does it make sense to reveal all your secrets to people who are your competition? This is where ethics comes into the code, and it’s relative to the individual photographer about how to handle this.
I would very much like to know what you think about this topic. Please share your views if you do have feedback and we can continue the discussion. Thank you.