ethics?

Is it wrong to take a picture of someone in pain?

Lucas is suffering from a migraine today, unfortunately the second in a mere matter of weeks. He roused as I was taking his picture, an overhead shot of him with his head buried under the pillow (and I’ve done this before — that is, take his picture while he’s asleep and/or sick), and asked if I was taking his picture. I haven’t taken a picture in weeks and I felt the sudden urge to photograph his state of vulnerability, partly as documentation, partly on an artistic bent. Anyway, I panicked, lied and said I was photographing the cat. Now, I’m feeling guilty for lying and for taking his picture.

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11 responses

  1. I have the same problem when someone I know is going through something hard and I want to write about it because it feels so important, but I can’t let myself because I’m worried they’ll feel exploited.

    But I think everything can be talked about. If he gets upset that you took that picture you could explain to him why. I mean, he’s important to you, and he’s in pain, and that means something.

    July 29, 2007 at 5:58 pm

  2. No. It’s wrong to take a picture of someone without the person’s permission, but if you’ve done it before and he knows about it and hasn’t objected, i’d say that’s tacit consent. It is wrong to lie, especially to someone you care about.

    July 29, 2007 at 8:39 pm

  3. Yes and no, I guess I would say.
    I mean, some of the most unforgettable pictures in history would not exist if it weren’t for the photographer’s presence. But on the other end of the spectrum, the photographer can intervene to help or to restrain themself by being respectful.

    But we’re not talking about such an extreme situation here of course. I would think Lucas would be more comfortable with you photographing him by now? But at the same time, maybe he just doesn’t want you to record that moment. What’s the worst that could happen if you did say you were taking a picture of him?

    Is Lucas a self-conscious person? I know he’s kind of a shy-ish guy. A few times now when I’ve been in the backseat while he is driving, I’ve tried to take a picture of his forearm because the image of his arm hair against the dark upholstery is really striking to me. But whenever I get the camera focussed so that the ‘delicateness’ of the hair is in the foreground (also, the car is moving too), I think he notices what I’m doing and moves the positions of his hands so that that image disappears. Any way, it’s not a big deal.. I just thought of that little story!

    July 30, 2007 at 1:42 am

  4. Yeah, I felt awful about lying. I’m not even sure why I did. I guess I thought he’d sounded mad.
    I ended up telling him last night that I was taking his picture and not the cat’s.
    He said it was fine that I did, that he was glad I was taking pictures again and that he wasn’t mad earlier when I thuoght he’d sounded it.

    July 30, 2007 at 2:57 pm

  5. I hadn’t considered the same parallels with writing, so you’ve really got me thinking now.
    I suppose it seems to me that writing is less exploitive and perhaps, to an extent, less revealing, than an image.
    I’m reconsidering this now.

    I ended up telling him last night that I was taking his picture, and that I’d lied before. He said he wasn’t mad, nor was he mad earlier when he asked if I had been taking his picture. I guess I had misinterpreted his grogginess to be irritation.

    July 30, 2007 at 3:02 pm

  6. I was thinking that — that photojournalism is very much reliant on the visual documentation of others’ pain. The first example that comes to mind is the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm. And I’ve always wondered if you’re a better photographer for being assertive (not aggressive) enough to get in there to get your picture, or to be respectful and keep your distance.

    Lucas was very much self-conscious about being photographed when we first got together.
    He used to have a chipped front tooth when he was younger and never smiled, and never really wanted his picture taken.
    He considers himself shy too.
    But he’s gotten a lot better since, since he’s pretty much the only human being I regularly photograph.
    He allows himself to be photographed, knowing that I pretty much never get him to look in the camera anyway and that I’m not out to exploit him, like putting his naked butt all over the Internet.

    It turns out, he wasn’t mad at my taking his picture.
    I just thought he was mad, ’cause he sounded so.
    He said he was just groggy and confused, you know, that state when you’ve just woken up.
    The guilt over lying got me and I told him I was taking his picture, not Avy’s.
    He said he was glad I was starting to take pictures again; I’m just relieved he wasn’t mad.

    I’ve always wanted to take a picture of his hand/arm while he’s driving too!!!
    I don’t get the same view you would (a view that I think it much better than mine) but I totally know what you mean!
    The baby goat hairs (what you called it years ago, if you recall?)!
    I’ve tried taking the picture, but like you said, the car is moving and it makes it hard to get a focussed picture.
    If you do get the chance the next time, I say take the picture.
    He knows you’re a photographer, he doesn’t mind his picture being taken (especially if it’s only a body part and not his face).
    And really, I don’t think he really notices you taking a picture of his hand.
    He tends to move his hands around a lot when he’s driving.
    Well, not like, a lot. But you know… more so than say, me.

    July 30, 2007 at 3:43 pm

  7. I think the intent inform whether or not anything is exploitative. If you’re doing it because you think it’s a selling piece, then it’s exploitation. Anything else is alright by me.

    In high school photography class there would always be the one jerk who thinks that taking pictures of sad-looking homeless people is the ticket to a 90%… The teacher eventually had to make a rule about taking people’s picture without permission because there would always be someone like that.

    But if you’re walking down the street and your heart goes out to someone sleeping on a sewer grate so you take their picture and give them a couple bucks or maybe buy them a bagel or something – I don’t know, that’s a whole different story. I guess you can’t tell the difference in the final product, but I think you’ll always know whether you did it right.

    I’m glad that Lucas wasn’t mad. After all I’m sure he knows your intentions are never anything but good.

    July 30, 2007 at 4:09 pm

  8. i’m not too smart on ethics and can’t explain what i think but in summary i guess it wasn’t wrong of you to have done so.

    i took a photograph of a stranger the other day. she walked into the viewfinder as i was composing for a shot of something else, and i instinctively closed the shutter. she was framed by the light and everything about that scene was really nice to me. but now i feel like a voyeur and have been feeling guilty since.

    maybe photography is easier without a conscience.

    August 15, 2007 at 2:39 pm

  9. I wonder if photojournalism could be construed as being exploitive in that sense then. In that, the photographers make a living by taking the kinds of pictures that they do.

    That’s quite amusing, about high school photography and pictures of the homeless. I never took photography in high school but I’ve noticed that pieces on the homeless seem to be quite the popular subject matter. I feel kinda bad for finding it trite now, like images of female nudes.

    August 17, 2007 at 12:22 am

  10. I don’t suppose you’re referring to this picture, are you? I really love that image, incidentally. Something about people’s heads and hair being framed by the sunlight is very appealing.

    I do that too though, although perhaps with more intent than you have. I enjoy taking pictures of strangers, especially in cityscapes, when they always seem to be engaged in something typically mundane but which I find interesting. But I do like what you said — that photography might be easier without a conscience. Art without a conscience, for that matter, might end up being more creative.

    August 17, 2007 at 12:29 am

  11. oh yes thats the one :] those were actually lights from a stage setup.

    yes art might be more creative that way. anything about everything seems to offend somebody these days :[ art for art’s sake, just as a child would, innocent and without malicious intent. more of that’d be nice :]

    August 18, 2007 at 2:33 am

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