Understanding photography ethics in social research

Photo: Savannah Dodd

Photo: Savannah Dodd


Two years ago, I attended a photography exhibition that featured images from the aftermath of the 2013 tsunami in the Philippines. One attendee, noting the anguished faces in the images, asked the photographer, ‘How did people feel about you photographing them when they were suffering?’

The photographer disappointed me in his response. He said that he did not know or care how they felt; that his responsibility is not to know how they feel, but to take their picture. He swept across Manila taking pictures of the destruction without any engagement with, or consent from, the individuals he photographed.

Although this is an extreme example, it highlights some of the key principles of photography ethics, including dignity, power, and consent. Further, it raises the question: what is the responsibility of the photographer? What responsibilities do we have to the subject and to the viewer?

Photography in social research

Research has seen a growth in methodologies that use photographic data, including the study of ‘found’ photography, the production of photographs by researchers or by interlocutors (‘photo-voice’), the use of photographs in interviews (‘photo-elicitation’), and the representation of research through photography (Pauwels, 2015).

Photographic methodologies have enabled researchers to access different kinds of information (Harper, 2002), to record ‘thick description’ (Kharel, 2015), and to break down power relationships between the researcher and the interlocutor (Niskac, 2011).

The democratisation of photography and its increased use in research represents an exciting opportunity for conducting and presenting research in new and innovative ways. It also, however, raises challenges.

Understanding photography ethics

The foundations of photography ethics are essential to all types of research. The question is: how can we apply them to a visual medium? Going further: how do questions of research ethics change when applied to photography?

Take, for example, the idea of responsibility to accurately represent your subject. Now imagine that you are looking at a photograph you took of a street on which you conducted fieldwork. When you took the photograph, you did not notice the rubbish heap in the bottom right corner, so, before adding this image to your report, you crop it out of the frame. Is this an accurate portrayal, or are you deceiving the viewer? How can we accurately portray any scene when we are always cropping reality with our lens? In what ways does this type of selection differ from the selection we do in our writing?

This simple-seeming example speaks to the fundamentals of photography ethics. We face these questions of representation and selection in every picture we take. And there are dozens of ethical considerations that should be considered if we want to make use of photography in our research.

Consent is another foundational ethical question. While forms present consent in binary terms of yes or no, in reality, consent is a constant negotiation: are people consenting to be photographed only once, for five minutes’ time, or for a whole day? Are they consenting to be photographed candidly, or only when they are aware of the camera? If they receive some bad
news and are distressed, do you still have consent to photograph?

Going further

There is no singular way of thinking about photography ethics. Research photographers find themselves having to make ethical decisions on the spot, taking into consideration many variables, including method, subject, context and intent. Rather than attempting to outline what is unequivocally right or wrong, there is greater value in familiarising researchers with the ethical arguments to enable them to think critically about how they use photography in their work.


Harper, D. (2002). ‘Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation’. Visual Studies 17(1): 13–26.

Heyman, S. (2015). ‘Photos, photos everywhere’. The New York Times.

Kharel, D. (2015). ‘Visual ethnography, thick description and cultural representation’. Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology 9: 147–160.

Niskac, B. (2011). ‘Some thoughts on ethnographic fieldwork and photography’. Studia Ethnologica Croatica 23(1): 125–148.

Pauwels, L. (2015). Reframing visual social science: towards a more visual sociology and anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This article originally was published in the magazine of the Social Research Association ‘Research Matters’, September 2017.