The Ethics of Digital Photography: Part 1

Before I jump into today’s post, I want to extend my thanks to guest blogger Jessica Sweeney for her contribution yesterday! Thank you, Jessica, for offering a challenge to us all with the first guest post of the year. Sometimes we just need to stop thinking too much and just get out there and shoot! I think there’s something we can all take away from that!

I’ll be having one of my guest bloggers share a post with you all every other Monday – give or take – throughout the year until they revolt and tell me they can’t take it anymore! Look for a post by Kevin Halliburton on Monday the 25th!

Now, on to the content…

Last week, one of my readers sent me a couple of questions for us to consider when looking at what is and what is not “ok” when approaching the photos we take and process every day, which we will be exploring over the next couple of days.

I’ll start off my admitting that I am no expert on any of these topics and I am eager to learn from those of you who may have more experience with some of these areas. So please share your thoughts in the comments below.

The first question, which we will be discussing today, has to do with photographing the homeless. I’ve not done this, personally, but I know a number of people who have and they seem to have a pretty good method.

First and foremost, the homeless are people too. Approach them with the same level of respect as you would with anyone else you want to photograph. Treat them like the human beings they are. Talk to them for a few minutes, get a sense of who they are.

Make sure that they would be comfortable with you photographing them before you just jump right in and shoot. They have the same rights to their likeness as we do. If they don’t want you shooting them, don’t. Thank them for their time and move on.

If you are fortunate enough to do some shooting, however, stay a couple of extra minutes to continue the conversation. Show them what you took. In any case, whether you photograph them or not, offer them some money. Not just some spare change but maybe a couple of bucks. They are, after all, providing you a service.

Like I said, I don’t have much experience with this, myself, but I think that’s a fair and just way of going about it. What have you done in similar situations? Would you go so far as to use a model release?

  • Jim Orr

    Hi, Jason –

    The ethical questions surrounding photographing the homeless is compounded when we travel to other countries because of different customs and traditions. I have been to Africa, China, and South America, and I always try to “do my homework” regarding local customs and taboos before I visit a country.

    For example, should one offer a small financial gratuitiy to photograph someone?

    Of course, a sincere smile and a “Thank You” in the local language can also go a long way.

    Thank you for opening up these issues for discussion.

    Jim Orr

    January 12, 2010 at 8:57 am
  • Captain Obvious

    It doesn’t matter whether someone’s homeless or not, if you don’t have that model-release, you can be sued for using their likeness in commercial work. Period.

    ( when they change the law to make commercial use of _homeless_ people’s likeness not require such, look out: eugenics will also probably also be on the slate )

    As for money exchange, it depends on the person AND why the photo is being shot, and what it’ll be used for.

    If someone’s shooting street people to make a poster/package to leverage some community awareness of the *people*, instead of the “problem” they are, offering money may be superfluous.

    If instead, someone’s looking to sell prints or stock or something, I’d make damn certain I paid them, and had the means to at least try to contact them, to pay them a percentage, if I sold that image.

    Simple honour: that income wouldn’t have existed without their contribution, therefore they have the right to some of it.

    people remember such principles, yes?

    from ancient heresay?

    : b

    January 14, 2010 at 2:37 pm
  • Hello Jason,
    I am writing it as purely “keep the discussion going”, as I do not have any experience myself and probably won’t have any in the near future with photographing people at all, as it doesn’t interest me much. But I still have opinion ;).
    I am not sure why would you need a model release for a homeless person. This are not images likely to be used in any commercial venue, and you surely can put those images on your Web page or in your portfolio without the release.
    I also agree with staying and talking to them, giving them some spare change or buying a coffee, on a humanly behavior level, but if you start from talking, you will end up with posed, unnatural pictures, which in my opinion are on the worthless side? Well, I guess it would depend if it is a portrait or environmental portrait, probably? Or I am totally off?

    January 17, 2010 at 10:03 pm

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