Week 5 – Power and Responsibility

In this weeks first forum we were asked to look at the photograph of the refugees crossing into Slovenia from Croatia taken by Jeff Mitchell shortly before the Brexit vote that was used by UKIP in a way totally unintended by the photographer, and to discuss the ethical judgements in relation to the taking of, publication and or use of photographs.  Refugees cross from Croatia into Slovenia in October 2015 (c) Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images https://goo.gl/gtrmU6 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Is it fair to depict vulnerable people in a political campaign without their explicit consent? Can the photographer object to the use of the image? What is the purpose of documenting the refugee crisis? And does it incite hatred?

“It is always uncomfortable when an objective news photograph is used to deliver any political message or subjective agenda, however the image in question has been licensed legitimately,” said Getty Images, but did not comment further.” (1)

“The photographic agencies sell the pictures, they never ask what they’ll be used for.

Newspapers use the pictures to make a point according to their political slant.

The photographer’s original intention isn’t even considered.

By adding a few words, Jeff’s intention was changed 180 degrees.

His picture had changed the situation all right.

Just not in the way he intended.” (2)

The Jeff Mitchell photograph reminds of the discussion and comments I made in the first week’s forum on the Global Image.  I doubted then whether an image can truly ever carry universally uniform meaning, and here is an image which in the photographer’s mind intended that outcome, but as the Trott blog above noted, a few words changed the intention completely.  Getty as the intermediary abdicated all responsibility as indicated in the Al Jazeera interview above.

So even the most ethical and responsible among us truly have no control once the rights to our images are released to someone else.  Until we as photographers can somehow imbed in our photographs the intention with which we took them, there will always remain the risk that those images will be misused. Photographs rarely can stand on their own, and the words that go with them matter.  Whomever controls the words can control the message of the photograph.  I suppose if we as photographers wanted to represent ourselves and with each image sold issued a contract with limitation on its use we could mitigate some of the risk, but in reality we would likely end up spending more time in solicitor’s office than on photo shoots.  And the risk would not disappear completely because there will always be the unscrupulous who will seek to improve their own fortunes at the expense of others.

Unfortunately, I believe this is just but one more symptom of a general decline in ethical standards across the globe in which moral responsibility is often seconded to the desires of greed and power.  We are inundated, no bombarded, with images constantly in print media and television trying to sell us something we likely don’t need, but which advertisers are trying to condition us to believe and want.  Economics and power are, and always have been, powerful human motivators.  The most cynical of views would argue since news outlets have grown into profit driven multimedia conglomerates with shareholders to satisfy, the decisions of should we or shouldn’t we publish seem often to made on whether or not it will increase revenue.  Certainly, this is not universally true, but it happens enough to create the situation in which Jeff Mitchell found himself.

Getty used the excuse that they licensed the image legitimately to absolve themselves of responsibility.  Should the licensing agreements be required to reflect the author’s intentions?  Could photographers or agencies survive economically if they did?  Once that photo is in the public domain, is it even remotely possible to control how an image is used?  One needs only to look at Facebook and other social media to see memes created from legitimately licensed images to realize it is probably not.

So for photographers what is the answer?  I think we can only keep taking photographs, do our best to photograph what we feel to be morally and ethically responsible, deal with generally reputable outlets for our work, and hope our work gets used within the bounds of the intentions we had when the image was captured; at least until we can figure out how to bury our captions 3 dimensionally behind or within the image.


SAFDAR, A., , Brexit: UKIP’s ‘unethical’ anti-immigration poster. Available: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/brexit-anti-immigration-ukip-poster-raises-questions-160621112722799.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. [Feb 27, 2018].



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