The theme of this week's session of Appearances was Ethics: specifically some of the ethical issues that arise when taking photographs of people in the street. Ethics is largely a matter of how we treat other people (and, to a certain extent, the kind of person that each of us chooses to become). The point of this session was to raise questions rather than to give a definitive answer to those questions.
Ethical issues arise in the act of taking a photograph of someone who doesn't want to be photographed. Although in many parts of the world it is legal to photograph someone in these circumstances, it clearly causes some people distress. In extreme cases, it can be tantamount to stalking someone (the paparazzi syndrome). A photographer might argue that no one is seriously harmed in the process and that if people are in a public place they are fair game (and even that there is tacit consent to be photographed by entering the public space of the street). In Street and Studio in Tate Modern the sequence of images in Room 2, taken on the street in Hong Kong by Ed van der Elsken seems to border on harassment if we are to believe the caption saying that the photographer just followed a 'babe' around for a bit photographing her even though she didn't want him to.
The subsequent use of an image is also important. If I walk down Oxford Street and someone tracks my progress on a surveillance camera, that is very different from a photographer takes my photograph (perhaps in an unflattering way) and puts my image in an exhibition or prints it in a magazine or newspaper. In Tate Modern, the Philip-Lorca diCorcia images from the 'Heads' (review) series taken using a telephoto lens in Times Square from 1999 - 2001 are of people who did not know what was happening. They had no idea that they had been photographed. Their images have then appeared in public places (including a book and now Tate Modern) and at least one of the subjects has tried (and failed) to mount a legal case about this use on grounds of privacy. diCorcia's defence was based on the First Amendment right to free expression (the case was dismissed on the grounds that there was too long a gap between the act of taking the photograph and the complaint : read a New York Times article about the case and another in the American Journalism Review).
In these two examples above, a Kantian approach to ethics might suggest that the photographer's actions were immoral. For Immanuel Kant, the Categorical Imperative, the basic rule of ethics is that you should treat people as ends in themselves, respect their autonomy, rather than treat them as means to an end. Ed van der Elsken treated the woman as a simple means to get a photograph rather than acknowledged her as someone with her own desires and wishes; diCorcia seems not to be unduly concerned with the individuals' feelings about how their images are to be used - for him his right to free expression as an artist/photographer is the issue.
A consequentialist might point out that any harm done in these cases is minimal (though in the Van E case, they experience of being pursued could be psychologically traumatic) and the benefit in terms of producing interesting street photographs, large. So cost/benefit analysis would suggest that the photographer was justified in his approach in each case.
Less straightforward is the example of Boris Mikhailov.[read an interesting piece from the Guardian about him, and also an interview with him] His photographs of people on the margins of Ukrainian society are disturbing documentary images. In some cases he has observed and photographed, and his actions are justified by the way in which he makes visible something that many people would rather not see. In this respect he is completely within the mainstream tradition of photojournalism. But at the point where he pays subjects to expose themselves for his camera he enters another domain. Here he is deliberately challenging our views about morality. These people are so destitute that very little sense of dignity is left to them, and Mikhailov demonstrates this by showing how readily they will further humiliate themselves for money. At first glance this appears a highly immoral act of exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of a shocking image. A response to this view, though, is that there is a kind of 'tu quoque' move going on here, because in his commercial interaction and humiliation of his subjects he is simply mirroring economic relations that all of us are implicated in. He is perhaps saying 'You are no better than me'. Yet, even on this interpretation, it could be argued that as he has genuinely and knowingly further humiliated the downtrodden, he has done something seriously immoral to make a moral point, and that is not acceptable.
The neutral presentation of his highly challenging style of documentary photography in Tate Modern is unfortunate: most viewers need some background information about the circumstances in which these images were made to get a grip of what the moral issues might be here, and why they are actually an aspect of his approach to photography.
If you are interested in getting an overview of three distinct approaches to ethics, listen to these podcasts: