The Duchess's Décolletage: photo-ethics and the paparazzi
Everything we do that involves interaction with other people has an ethical dimension. That's not a clever or a philosophical statement: it seems to me to be self-evident, and to apply just as much to taking photographs of other people for possible publication as it does to DUI, the activities of the financial services sector or of politicians, or simply just to the conversational mores of the local curtain-twitching gossip.
One could argue the toss forever about just how much privacy a famous person deserves, whether the extent to which they court the press in order to sell music, movies or whatever has any bearing on the matter, whether the degree of effort they have made to avoid being seen or photographed is relevant. But it seems to me that the Duchess of Cambridge is a thoroughly good person of admirable charitable endeavour who, other than the monarchy itself, has little to sell. And that when she took to the sun sans bikini top, she was with intimate friends and family a very long way from any public right of way. So in the pantheon of those who might be considered fair game, she ranks low.
Unless, of course, you are a 'pap' - an abbreviation also used to describe genital warts. In which case, for at least some of them, interaction with the rest of the human race is a morality free zone.
During the recent uproar over the publication of the above-mentioned photographs I heard a particularly unedifying interview with a British paparazzo who, when asked whether he thought there was anything unethical about the behaviour of the photographer involved, replied with words to the effect that there wasn't because 'every pap would have done it,' which seems to me to be the excuse of everyone who shelves moral responsibility as soon as the $$ signs come on in their eyes. Whether or not these people would feel the same were a third party to behave with similar disregard toward themselves and their families is a question I can answer easily: if someone mowed their spouse down on the sidewalk, abducted their child or stole their money, they wouldn't like it at all. They might glory in such nicknames as 'The Sewer Rat' in their professional lives but you can bet that if they found rats in their own kitchens, they'd be calling the exterminator.
As a photographer myself I'm less interested in the moral positions of the editors and media owners (my expectations of people like the Berlusconi family are not sky high: if the paparazzi are the rats, these people own and run the sewers) than I am in those of the paparazzi themselves. Because it seems to me that these questions apply not just to these camera-wielding spree-killers but also to the rest of us.
Let me give an example: a familiar sight on the photography forums is the keen novice who has suddenly become greatly excited about 'Street Photography' and who utterly misunderstands what that genre involves, with the upshot that they go out and prey on the homeless as photographic subjects.
Now, it is in my opinion absolutely possible to treat the homeless as legitimate photographic targets IF your intention is in some way to highlight their plight and help improve on their situation. It is absolutely NOT legitimate if you are choosing them because they are in a sad way picturesque, and are also too weak or drunk or old or ill to object to your intrusion. They are not there as objects of curiosity for a cheap shot: they are generally there because something has gone wrong with their lives so, if you can't (or don't want to) help, then please, walk on by.
There are a lot of less clear-cut instances of when it is and when it is not ok to photograph people in public places and many of these are not only morally but also legally ambiguous and these ambiguities vary from country to country and culture to culture. There are those who think you might be stealing their souls, perhaps, and there are those who simply value their privacy. There was a famous legal case in the USA involving photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia who had photographed an Orthodox Jew in a public street and then offered the resulting image for sale as a limited edition print. The subject complained that his privacy and his religious rights had been violated by both the taking and the publication of the image, and took his case to law. diCorcia won the case on the basis of the First Ammendment. So he was judged legally entitled to act as he did, regardless of what one might think of the morality of it. In my opinion, he is a photographer of the highest possible quality whose work treats its subjects with great respect and empathy and so I am inclined not only to trust his judgement but also to feel pretty certain that he will have considered the ethical dimension of what he was doing in some considerable depth. And in the final analysis, to me, that is what matters: not whether or not I agree with the moral judgement of another photographer but that I know s/he at least considered it seriously.
Which is not what most 'paps' do, as far as I can see.
Keywords: Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, ethics, identity, morality, paparazzi, paparazzo, photographic ethics, photographs, publication, topless
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