Photo ethics


Dum-Dums (Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass)

What would you do if I handed you a delicious looking lollipop then a second before it reached your tongue I promptly snatched it away uttering “actually no I’ll have it back”?! I expect you would be mildly annoyed and perplexed, and probably demand an explanation. If you happened to be a 3 year old however, it would be a different story. This might actually be one of the worst things that had ever happened to you in your whole life. Granted, this may be because you would have had comparatively fewer things happen to you in your life, but it might also be because as a child your whole existence would be dependent on the adults around you, a crack in the reliability of those relationships may well indicate peril.

Having come across discussion in the twittersphere about these photos by Jill Greenberg who has used this method to capture pictures of crying children, I felt compelled to explore photo ethics a little. In her pictures, Greenberg is aiming to convey her sense of real desperation at the seemingly increasing problems encountered in the world  today and the lack of government willingness to address them. Noble ideals indeed, but it seems to me like the children depicted are treated as artistic media rather than people in their own right. They are most likely not acutely aware of the current political climate, but they are aware that someone just did something that hurt them.

Even though they receive the sweet in the end what rational explanation can a young person come to as to why such unessecary pain was caused in the interim? The somewhat conceptual value of high art is not easy one to grasp as a toddler, immediate physical and emotional needs are far higher on the agenda. Children do not exist for aesthetic or other kinds of benefit to adults, quite the opposite in fact. I have heard that one of the indications of a healthy child is that they ask a lot of questions – demonstrating complete trust in those who care for them, that they will be listened to and told the truth. Essentially, unbroken trust is very important to a child’s development. Comments made of these portraits contain phrases such as ‘moving’, ‘haunting’ and ‘beautiful’, and they are definitely true but were the images worth it?

I find an interesting contrast between this work and the work of Don McCullin, whose film-biography I recently watched (still available of iPlayer if you get in there quick). There are stories of him mucking in at risk to his own life to help those he photographed. He also decided to forego certain photograph opportunities out of respect for his subjects. If you love photography and people I would recommend this film, but be warned – it is difficult to watch.


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