Image and Ethics

In case you missed The Ethics of Capturing @ The Photographers’ Gallery on May 2019 here is a nutshell from the PhilosophyArts event. The evening was introduced and chaired by Dr. Sarah Fine.

(With thanks to Dr. Sarah Fine)

Photography plays a powerful role in contemporary society, and raises a series of complex ethical questions for photographers, their subjects, curators, and audiences. For example, who or what should be captured, and by whom? When, if ever, should we refuse to photograph or be photographed? Which images should be circulated? When should we look, or look away?

Dr. Sarah Fine, from the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London

Tonight we are going to be focusing primarily on the photographer’s side of things. We’re going to be discussion the Ethics of Capturing. In subsequent events, we will be discussing the ethics of exhibiting, of spectating, and of being photographed. Each of these will be an occasion to reflect back on a classic exhibition from The Photographers’ Gallery archive.

For tonight’s event, we will cast our minds back to the Gallery’s opening exhibition, The Concerned Photographer, which was curated by Cornell Capa and featured the work of pioneering photojournalists including Robert Capa, Dan Weiner, Leonard Freed, David (Chim) Seymour, Werner Bischoff, and Lewis Hine.

 I am delighted to introduce our wonderful panel.

Our first award-winning photography is…

Dr. Paul Lowe, is an award-winning photographer, Reader in Documentary Photography and Course Leader for the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Life, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer and The Independent. He is a consultant to the World Press Photo foundation in Amsterdam. Paul’s book, Bosnians, was published in 2005 and documented 10 years of the war and post-war situation in Bosnia. His research interests include the representation of conflict in photography and the ethical issues this raises.

Our second award-winning photographer is…

Laura Pannack, who is known for her portraiture and social documentary artwork. Her work has been exhibited and published across the world, including at The National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House, The Royal Festival Hall and the Houses of Parliament.  Laura’s numerous accolades include the John Kobal Award, Juliet Margaret Cameron award, Prix de la photographie, World Press Photo and the Vic Odden award. Laura also lectures at universities, workshops and festivals around the world, and in 2015 judged the portrait category in World Photo Press Awards in Amsterdam.

And our expert in Philosophy of Photography is…

Dr Dawn Wilson is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hull, and a leading expert in the philosophy of photography. She has published widely on Art, Aesthetics and Photographic images, and she also writes about Wittgenstein. She is writing a book about Aesthetics and Photography, which includes an original theory of the photographic process, oriented around an idea she calls the ‘photographic event’.

So we’re in for a rich discussion.

I’m going to ask our panellists a question, and after they’ve talked about it, I’ll open up to you for questions. 

  1. Does a photographer have a distinct set of artistic/ethical/professional obligations, different from those of (other) visual artists?

E.g. What, if anything, is special about photography and photographic images? Does it matter whether we’re talking about art, documentary photography etc?  Of course, some photographers don’t see themselves as ‘artists’. Does that matter?

  1. Are there people/objects/scenes that should not be captured or circulated?

At which stage of the process should the photographer consider these ethical questions? How important is it to seek/obtain the subject’s permission/approval?

  1. Does it matter who is taking the photograph? Are there photographs that should only be captured by particular photographers?

E.g. is it acceptable for ‘outsiders’ to tell the subject’s story? Here I’m thinking about ethics of speaking for others, and ‘using’ the experiences of others (especially when the photographer gets the money/credit). When is it exploitative? Also problems of ‘exoticising’, caricaturing, misrepresenting, etc.

Come and join for the next event in our series, which will be on 25 September, on the Ethics of exhibiting.


Speakers at this event included Paul Lowe, photographer and Course Leader for MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication; Laura Pannack, British social documentary and portrait photographer; Dawn M Wilson, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hull.

The Centre for Philosophy and Visual Arts at King’s have teamed up with The Photographers’ Gallery to present an exciting series of events on the Ethics of Photography, in the run up to The Gallery’s 50th anniversary in 2021.

Come and join for the next event in our series, which will be on 25 September, on the Ethics of exhibiting.