Photography, Power & Others

This weeks topic considers the moral and ethical questions that need to be addressed in our research and how to then implement these in order to sustain an ethical practice.
There are three main parties we need to consider when thinking about ethics within others’ and our own practice; the author, the subject and the audience. We can look at these three points in the form of an ethical triangle, where each point refers to the other. It is the relationship between each of these that is important, in an ideal world we want equal balance of power between all, but this doesn’t always work - and is that okay? As I discussed prior when exploring Steve McCurry’s portrait ‘Afghan Girl’ I stated that he, as the photographer and an older, western male, held the power over his subject who did not consent to the image being taken. Clearly there was an imbalance there, but would he have achieved such a powerful image in other circumstances?

Sally Mann’s project ‘Immediate Family’ focuses on her children and close family members, watching their developing childhood and everything this encompasses - growth, sexuality, dependence and autonomy. 

Mann’s work has been heavily criticised because of such themes; critics saw the work as exploiting and sexualising her young children, showing them naked or hurt. How can children of this age consent to these images being taken? In fact, all Mann was portraying was the journey of childhood, the highs and lows, and discoveries that every child goes through as they grow and find their own independence and self. Mann resisted publishing the work until later, when her children were old enough to understand the pictures, and she had consent from them. Certain images didn’t make the cut because they didn’t want them to be. 
Although some of the images may initially be quite frank and harsh, the negative implications of sexualising the nude children I think comes from the viewer rather than Mann herself. Children do not understand adult politics, they just like to be naked and free. Mann, as their mother is just showing them living naturally and authentically. If a viewer see’s this as sexual, this is simply their own prejudices projecting on what they are seeing. When we think back to our three main elements, this is an example where the ethical balance is uneven, where the audience can take the power and change the meaning from the authors intentions and what the subject(s) agreed too. 

Interpreting images is entirely subjective for every viewer, but can be categorised culturally and therefore known by the term ‘gazes’. So we can talk generally about how a certain group may view something. Problems occur when certain types of gazes dominate - we particularly see this with the male gaze and the western gaze. What does it mean for certain groups, cultures, or societies that see themselves almost solely through the gaze of others? It alters their perception of themselves.
We can recognise the male gaze through advertising for example, women are continually sexualised and and shown for male pleasure and this is so engrained within our society we may not even recognise it anymore. We make choices in order to match what is expected. 

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. (…) Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” 
                                                                                                                                           -Berger, 1972 (47)

Reflect on the ‘triangle’ model in relation to your own practice: do you feel that there is any kind of imbalance in terms of the relationships between the three ‘corners’?

When I look at the ethical triangle model when referring to my own practice, due to the nature of my interest in people and their environments, there is clearly quite a strong relationship between me as the author and my subjects. There needs to be a level of trust there, and it is their involvement to allow me into their homes and spaces, which allows me to make the work I do. Respectfully, I want to portray my subjects as authentically as possible and although the power may lie with me as the photographer I want to share this power with my subjects in order to share exactly what they want to about themselves. I am not trying to push my perception of them, but enhance their own voice with my work. I think any imbalance may fall with the audience. I feel I have not quite found my confidence in myself and my practice and therefore have not really shared my work beyond my close circle. This is not necessarily without trying, but I have not reached platforms to push my work further. 

Think about any previous experiences out shooting: have there ever been any moments when you felt that what you were doing, or had done, was unjust or inappropriate? If so, what prompted this?

I think I particularly felt my taking of photos was inappropriate at certain times when I was travelling in SE Asia. I was very aware of my position of power as a Westerner documenting different cultures, and sometimes areas of poverty. This definitely crossed my mind when I was in Sapa, Northern Vietnam. I was trekking with a local guide and as we reached a certain check point, these little children were wandering round. I bent down to photograph them, and they immediately after held out these hand made bracelets encouraging me to buy one. I then watched as the same thing happened to another Westerner, an older male this time, and just felt this awful feeling that I was exploiting them for an image. 

What did this experience teach you about your approaches, both practically and conceptually?

I think this experience really reminded me of my position as a Westerner in a totally different continent with very different cultures. I did not want my photographs to be exploitative and highlighting how different these people may be. I realise my images to some extent will always be seen through the Western gaze as that is who I am, but it made me stop and think before taking a shot. 

  • Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, London
  • Public Delivery (2021). Why was Sally Mann’s Immediate Family so controversial?  Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2021).
  • Widewalls (2021). 5 Most Important Themes in the Photography of Sally Mann. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2021).
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