Interview with Savannah Dodd, Photography Ethics Centre

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Why did you start the Photography Ethics Centre?

After graduating from a master’s degree programme in anthropology, I spent several months volunteering at a photography gallery to further develop the relationship between my anthropological research and my photographic practice. During this time, I assisted with organising exhibitions and I attended regional photography festivals.

At these events, I delved into discussions with other photographers about the ethics of asking for consent and the responsibility of photographers, but I quickly realized that I was raising ethical questions that many people had never considered. I realized that my education in anthropology had prepared me with an awareness of ethics that has guided my own photography practice, but that this awareness is not universal. I realized that there is a gap in ethical understanding among photographers, and that this is a gap that I can fill. That is why I founded the Photography Ethics Centre.

The Photography Ethics Centre is a social enterprise that aims to raise awareness about ethics among people who take and share photographs. We offer educational training programmes on photography ethics, including online training and workshops.

Who is involved in the Photography Ethics Centre, and how did this group come together? What different perspectives are brought together in the Photography Ethics Centre community?

The idea for the Photography Ethics Centre was something that I had been considering for a while, but it was only set into motion after attending the Yangon Photo Festival in 2017. At this festival, I had important conversations with three people who would become the first members of the broader Photography Ethics Centre team: Director of Exhibitions at World Press Photo Laurens Korteweg, photography educator Ryan Libre, and award-winning photojournalist Minzayar Oo.

From the start, we had a group of geographically diverse people coming at the issue of photography ethics from different industry perspectives. Since then, our team has grown to include people from four different continents and with a variety of backgrounds, including academics, teachers, curators, and professional photographers. Several people involved, myself included, straddle these roles by working in multiple capacities within the photography industry.

While I am responsible for the day to day running of the Centre, I very much rely on the broader Photography Ethics Centre team for their input and support. It has been important to me from the start that the Centre is not about disseminating a normative approach to ethics determined by one person, but instead that it is about creating a space for the negotiation of multiple and differing ethical perspectives. I think that having a diverse team is integral to that aim.

What are photography ethics?

In the workshops I run, I often define ethics as the principles that guide a person’s behaviour. I like this approach of ethics as principles because it accounts for the fact that ethics are subjective (dependent on the individual and based in moral frameworks, life experiences, and beliefs) and contextual (dependent on where we are, who we are photographing, and why we are photographing). This means, for example, that we might all agree that the principle of respect is essential in photography, but how I demonstrate respect might be different from how another person demonstrates respect. Similarly, how I demonstrate respect in the context of my hometown of St. Louis might be different from how I demonstrate respect where I live now in Belfast or when I’m working in Hanoi.

This definition of ethics is based on the idea that there is no “one size fits all” answer to ethical dilemmas. We always need to consider our positionality, our subjectivity, the historical legacy, and sociocultural norms, among other things, when making ethical decisions. A principles basis allows for fluidity ethical decision-making from person to person and from context to context.

That said, there are a number of ethical principles that we can apply to photography, including by not limited to: respect, integrity, accountability, dignity, and nonmaleficence.

This is really timely, and incredibly important in all aspects of research. How do you negotiate ethics in practice in each of these contexts? (i.e. how do you ensure that you understand the contextual differences and that your practice is ethical in each place?)

When working in a socio-cultural context that is different from your own, it is essential to understand the historical legacy — and particularly the historical legacy of photography — in that context. For example, in contexts where the camera historically operated as an instrument of colonialism, it is important to factor this into decisions about how you use visual methods in your research.

Even with extensive background research, there are inevitably socio-cultural norms that you will not be privy to as an outsider. Therefore, it is essential to bring others into your decision-making process by consulting people who are familiar with the community in which you are working, or by consulting the very people you are working with. One way to do this is by implementing participatory methods at the initial design stage of a research project. Bringing experts on the context, like members of the research participant group, into the decision-making process ensures that the photographic methods you have in mind are appropriate and that they are facilitated through ethical processes. This also prevents misunderstanding and misalignment of objectives between subject and researcher.

How do you understand representation in the visual context?

Although we are taught how to read and interpret text in school, we are not taught to read and interpret visual media. However, just like word choice and syntax shape how we make meaning with words, we make choices when we take a photograph that shape the meaning of the image. When we choose to photograph from afar or up-close, from above or below, in black-and-white or in colour, we are using visual language to convey meaning, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.

This is critical when talking about representation because aesthetic choices are not benign. For example, black-and-white photography creates a feeling of distance because historical photographs are often seen in black-and-white and because most people do not perceive the world around them in black-and-white. Therefore, photographing a homeless person in black-and-white can have an “othering” effect by creating distance between the viewer and the subject.

Moreover, as much as photographs rely on visual language to create meaning, they also rely on visual tropes. It is vital to seriously consider what visual tropes we invoke and what stereotypes we risk perpetuating when we take and share photographs.

Photographs shape how we see the world, and when we take and share photographs we are shaping how others see the world. So when we take and share a photograph of a child living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, we are reinforcing a certain view of the world that is steeped in stereotypes. This is not to say that the stereotype does not also exist, but that there is a lot more to the story.

This relates directly to representing people with dignity. In stereotypical images, people often become props that symbolize something, rather than being regarded as individuals with their own complex stories to tell. Representation with dignity comes when we stop relying on stereotypes and tell more complex stories about the people in our photographs.

The crossovers you make between anthropology, journalism and visual studies are interesting. Who are your main theoretical influences and how do you bring them together?

This is a very big question! At the minute, a lot of my research has been focused on photographs of trauma. I would have to say that I’m currently really influenced by Susie Lindfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. I found this book really refreshing in that it offers greater nuance than many other writers about photographing, and looking at photographs of, trauma. Linfield’s book was actually recommended to me by another person who has greatly influenced my work and whom I had the pleasure of meeting last year, Elisabeth Edwards.

Edwards’ writings on ambiguity and photography have particularly resonated with me. In “Beyond the Boundary”, Edwards writes that photographs which “are based not only on the ambiguity of content but in the way in which they fracture the cultural expectations of the object itself” make “the viewer acutely conscious of lived experience and the ambiguous nature of its representation”, thus subverting “the conventional sense of the ‘knowability’ of culture” (1997: 68–69). To me it seems that this idea of producing photographs that make clear the subjectivity of the creator and challenge expectations of “truthfulness” is where the discipline of photography can learn the most from anthropology.

What are the most important considerations that a researcher should reflect on before deciding to utilise visuals in their research?

There has been a huge growth in research methodologies that use photographic data, including but not limited to: photovoice, the production of photographs by research subjects; photo elicitation, the use of photographs in interviews; and the presentation of research through photography. Although these methodologies present exciting opportunities for conducting and presenting research in new ways, they might not always be appropriate.

Having your photograph taken can be a very vulnerable and invasive experience. Before we decide to incorporate a photographic element into a research project, we need to make sure that taking photographs will provide our research with something that we could not otherwise access. Essentially, we need to know why we are taking photographs.

Once we have established that there is a valuable and legitimate reason for potentially exposing a research participant to the kind of vulnerability required in taking a photograph, then we can begin to navigate the complex ethical challenges that come with it.

How do you establish that there is a valuable and legitimate reason for using photography? Are there specific guidelines/tools/conversations that you use?

A valuable and legitimate reason for using photography comes from ensuring that your research objectives match your methodology. This is very obvious, and it is certainly not unique to visual methods, but I think that this connection is prone to getting lost when visual methods are involved. It is an exciting change of pace to work with images instead of words, and so it is understandable why researchers are keen to implement visual methods. Also, visual methods themselves are exciting and can do things that words alone cannot! However, just as photographs can do things for research that could not be done with words alone, photographs can also do harm that words alone could not do. Therefore it is important that we know why we are using visual methods and that we do so with respect for the power of the medium.

What are the key issues facing those working with visual media in research?

One of the key issues facing researchers working with visual media is that institutional guidelines are often not well equipped to deal with the visual. Institutional guidelines for research are traditionally written for text-based research and do not account for the ethical differences between working with words and working with images.

An example of this is the anonymisation of research participants. While anonymising visual data might be necessary to ensure the safety of research participants in some contexts, it can be difficult to do so without engaging in processes of erasure such as pixelating faces, covering up eyes, or cropping out other identifying features. This is particularly problematic when working with communities who have been historically and systematically silenced. There is a balance that must be struck between nonmaleficence and dignity, and sometimes one must be upheld at the expense of the other. Institutional guidelines are often uncompromising and unable to allow for considered negotiation between such ethical responsibilities.

Are there any current examples (online exhibitions etc, journalist pieces) that you think engage in ethics in a really nuanced way?

There are dozens examples of works that do an excellent job of engaging ethics in a nuanced way, so it is very hard to pick just a few to mention! For my PhD research, I have been spending a lot of time looking at how photographers portray trauma. I was particularly taken with David Farrell’s Innocent Landscapes and the struggle he felt photographing such beautiful places where something so violent occurred. He writes, “At first this beauty troubled me. Would it be possible to essentially aestheticize violence in a meaningful way? Could I usurp this beauty and turn it back against itself?” In the end, he finds a way for the beauty to make sense within the context of his work. Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s series titled Rohingya Massacre Survivors does a really good job of questioning the way that survivors of trauma are usually portrayed. She explains: “While war doesn’t look like the gentle, tender portraits I made, I wonder whether it’s a failing of photojournalism that we tend to represent victims of war at their most desperate and vulnerable. Representing them in much the same way I would a family member, as an individual rather than the statistic they become after they crossed the border, may constitute an alternative.”

Moving away from trauma, there is a lot of interesting work being produced that challenges representation. Jason Houston’s work with First Nations Communities seems to do a really good job of balancing how the community he works with wants to be represented and how he, as an outsider, understands the community. He includes “listening sessions,” similar to photo elicitation interviews, into his process. Through these sessions, he aims to get feedback from members of the community about how they are represented in his photographs. Anthony Luvera has produced really interesting work that works collaboratively with photographic subjects to produce “Assisted Self-Portraiture.”

Additionally, there is a ground swell of photographers who aim to challenge the way that their own communities are being represented. Fati Abubakar’s photographs show her hometown of Maiduguri, Nigeria in a more complex light by not focusing on the presence of Boko Haram, but instead focusing on positive stories that are underrepresented in the media. Erica Deeman does a really important work subverting traditional depictions of people of colour through photographic portraiture. Arpitha Shah’s Purdah — The Sacred Cloth aims to redefine perceptions of women in Scotland who practice the tradition of head covering.

Do you think that the ‘subject’s voice’ can be heard over that of the photographer?

I think photographs always need to be understood as a dialogue, or as a push and pull off different intentions. Tina Campt articulates this well in Image Matters when she defines the ‘social life of the photo’ as including ‘the intentions of both sitters and photographers as reflected in their decisions to take particular kinds of pictures’ (2012: 6).

Of course, it is clear that there also exists a power imbalance between the photographer and the person being photographed — this is especially true when the photographer is coming from a high-income context to a low- or middle-income context. This power imbalance can result in more “push” than “pull”, where the photographer’s vision excludes the subject’s voice. To try and mitigate this, long-term engagement with a community, relationship building, and effective consent processes are essential.

Some researchers have strived to prioritize the subject’s voice by implementing participatory visual media methods. However, such methods come with their own set of challenges. Divergent objectives between what the researcher hopes to achieve and what the community hopes to achieve need to be well negotiated, and dissemination of material must be handled carefully. Several authors in my forthcoming volume on Ethics and Integrity in Visual Research Methods address such challenges in participatory visual media methods.

Have you ever come across any views/thoughts on the relationship between the photographer/subject which differ from those you have expressed? We are particularly interested currently in the challenges of representation in the dissemination process? Can the ‘subject’ of photographs ever have control over their own representation once a photograph is shared publicly?

This is a great question, and it is one that Alice Neeson will tackle as a contributor in the forthcoming volume on Ethics and Integrity in Visual Research Methods. I don’t want to step on her toes or tell too much about that just yet, but stay tuned for the release of that volume in 2020.

What do you hope to achieve with the educational training courses you offer?

Instead of encouraging photographers to internalize set ethical guidelines, our courses promote ethical literacy. Ethical guidelines are unable to account for every possible eventuality, and, as I stated earlier, there is no “one size fits all” answer to ethical dilemmas. Ethical solutions cannot be transplanted from one situation to another without serious consideration for the context at hand, and ethical guidelines are often ill equipped to deal with this nuance.

Ethical literacy, on the other hand, means an ability to think critically and apply ethical principles to dilemmas as they arise, and it means adopting a photography practice that embeds ethics from start to finish. This involves a deeper understanding of how our photographs impact the world around us and of our responsibilities as image-makers.

On an individual level, I hope that participants leave our courses with a heightened awareness of photography ethics. On a larger scale, I hope that our work helps to bring about a shift in practice across the industry that embeds ethics in the photographic process.

Savannah Dodd is a photographer and anthropologist. Her work in photography is heavily influenced by her background in anthropology, and she often combines the disciplines to produce visual ethnography. She founded the Photography Ethics Centre in 2017 and is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology through a study of ethics in photographic archives at Queen’s University Belfast.

Previous blogs that Savannah has written can be found:

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