Duke Human Rights Center at KIE hosts panel on the ethics of photography

Photojournalists and documentary photographers are often forced to navigate difficulties in how their work with small communities is received and presented. On November 1, the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics hosted a panel discussion, “The Ethics of Photography for Social Change” to address some of the ethical complications that arise with photographic fieldwork. Panelists included Greg Constantine, an American-born photographer now based in Asia who works with stateless peoples around the world; John Moses, a pediatrician at Duke Medicine with experience documenting patient photographs; and Charity Tooze, Senior Communication Officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency. Tom Rankin, the Director of the Documentary Studies program, moderated.

The panelists spoke passionately of the need to lend a voice and sense of agency to those being photographed, whether they be ethnic minorities, underage mothers, or refugees. Several questions from the audience dealt with the implications of using individuals and their photos as representatives of a larger group. While it is impossible to capture each individual in a refugee community, there are ways in which the narrative that is presented can best describe personal experiences. The role of the photographic series or photo essay was brought up as a means to give a broader context, as well as the importance of intent by the photographer to act as an observer. In many of the projects that were discussed, little attention was given to the plights of particular communities prior to the documentary projects, and it is worthwhile to consider how the importance of educating the public on social issues might outweigh whatever misrepresentation may be introduced by the photographer as editor. By working directly with communities and being up front with the purpose and future distribution of the project, documentarians can limit the ways in which the stories that emerge from the photographs or videos distort the perspectives of the people being photographed. Legal issues were raised as well, in terms of the types of agreements made between the photographers and subjects, and the ways in which photographers can stipulate to larger agencies how their work is used or displayed.

The panel occurred in conjunction with the opening of “Nowhere People: The Global Face of Statelessness,” a photography exhibition of Constantine’s work now on view at the Kenan Institute for Ethics in the West Duke Building through the end of March.