Thoughts on the ethics and economics of photographing suffering

I cannot help but think that many other writers are overlooking or underplaying a significant area which requires further analysis. It seems that more consideration is given to the way that images are made and the ethical issues that arise in looking, than why they are made in the first place and what happens to them afterwards.

When looking at Tyler Hicks photograph of the Yemeni girl Amal Hussain, we could, as is acknowledged by many, be looking at hundreds of similar images of human suffering published since the invention of photography.

The (possibly inadvertent) anonymisation of the individual sufferer in order to create an icon of generalised suffering. The privileged view of the photographer, the man or woman who swoops into disaster and tragedy and is free to leave again at any point. All of that stuff.

I would agree that, on some level, we do need to know about the bad things happening in the world, otherwise the real danger of ignorance arises. An historical ignorance to other cultures and their struggles and the injustices of the world which should rightly have evaporated in an inter-connected world of image makers and story-tellers.

But it doesn’t feel to me like we are really reporting on anything, because to report is to invoke an action in response. If I find someone having a heart attack in the street, I report it to the emergency services who send out an ambulance. Then a team of people will take over from me and do everything in their power to save that life, or minimize its suffering.

Who exactly are the photographers reporting their emergency to? What kind of response are they getting?

You cannot, really, change anything with photographs. Or, at least, you cannot control what that photograph might mean in the hands of others. As Susan Sontag pointed out a photograph of human suffering is as much a call to arms for the people the suffering depicts as it is an antidote to violence.

The act of photographing is transformative. The people or events represented are converted in an image, an image to be read and understood in terms of aesthetics before ethics, because that is how images are understood.

‘To represent is to aestheticize; that is, to transform. It presents a vast field of choices but it does not include the choice not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented. It cannot be a pure process, in practice.’ (Levi Strauss, 2003)

The troubling realisation here is that most images are first aesthetic data in order to become economic data; before the photographers’ ethical code comes his or her economic needs. The need to develop or maintain a career.

Now I understand that there are far worse careers that could be pursued, and I am not attempting to demonise here. What I am suggesting though is that a photographic career should not be economically dependent on photographs of suffering. Photograph weddings, make portraits, do that stuff to support yourself, photograph the suffering for a different reason. Photograph human suffering to make a difference, and with that as your primary and only objective.

The existence of the World Press Photo ‘contest’, in these terms, is vulgar beyond all words. Icons of human suffering competing for the prize in a glorified beauty contest. This is not about raising awareness, this is the process of levelling up as a photographer, getting noticed and securing a future.

Pete Muller -’Medical staff escort a man, delirious in the final stages of Ebola, back into the isolation ward from which he had escaped, in Hastings, near the capital Freetown.’

“This was, perhaps, one of the greatest experiences of my life thus far. An extraordinary few days at World Press Photo with some of the most talented, thoughtful and dynamic people in photography. I’m feeling so positive about the industry and all that lies ahead.” (World Press Photo, 2015) Pete Muller, 2015 Photo Contest winner

There is talk of ‘otherness’ in ethical debates in the production of images such as these, but rarely is this spoken of in terms of money. A key factor in the definition of otherness has to be the exclusion of the subject from any financial transactions that these images instigate. The picture is sold by its author who then loses control of its use and any context in which it is made public. The subject — and their suffering — is a commodity bought and sold to illustrate content neither author nor subject can dictate.

The subject’s ‘otherness’ stems from this exclusion from the financial transaction.

The photographer — as much good as they convince themselves they are doing — also considers themselves in need of money and financial security to continue their work.

The subject of the photograph is rendered beyond the help of money, and therefore not in need of it. Compensation for their image is too complicated a business to consider (Who are they? Where are they? How do I pay them?) Their identity is irrelevant. It is about what they represent that is important, or useful. An icon of human suffering used to illustrate monetised visual stories — through news media and public exhibition — which serve to assuage the guilt of the privileged viewer (Rosler, 1981)and re-enforce a sense of helplessness. Can we not find these people? Can we not reimburse them or their families? If not, do not sell the picture, report as a human being, not as an economic being. Do not monetise suffering, just report it.

When I’m talking theory and ethics in photography with my students we always end up talking about Sebastiao Salgado. His work is well known by most students by the time they get to me and I fully understand that he is an easy target, but in fact his working methods also deserve some praise compared with many others, which is why I refer to him for balance. He is well known for working with the people he photographs, rather than being a ‘hit and run’ photographer referred to above, Salgado photographs ‘from inside, in solidarity’ (Galeano, 1992)

Sebastiao Salgado — Hospital de Gourma-Rharous. Mali, 1985.

Regardless, the one thing my students always throw back at it is a disbelief that he can make this work and then sell it, and not only sell prints, but sell them at hugely inflated prices. It is astonishing to a room full of undergraduates, as it is to me, that he can sell photographs of human suffering. They are clear that, it is far weirder to sell these as prints (art objects) than it is to sell news to newspapers. Even if all of the money raised was sent back to the people involved (which I highly doubt) it, the students say, is still weird.

Further to this economic ’otherness’ our subject is victim of another type of ‘alienation’* namely, a legal ‘otherness’.

The photographer’s rights to the ‘property’ of the picture, upon the moment his or her insured finger releases the shutter, will be assured under a legal framework which does not apply to the subject photographed; no matter how many times the picture is sold, or for how much, the photographers’ authorship is secured.

The image will float adrift in a sea of other monetised images ‘blown by the whims of the diverse communities that have a use for it’ (Sontag, 2003) awaiting a potentially transformative process of decontextualisation, but always known as Tyler Hicks picture of Amal Hussain. His legacy is assured, his CV enhanced, future employability credentials legitimised and a legally enforceable and pre-determined percentage of financial reimbursement guaranteed.

Our subject, Amal Hussain, is not only dead, she is dead, voiceless, financially excluded and legally unprotected by a system set up to protect the privileged author-photographer.

That is why we should consider the ethical implications of our work.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t’ try to make photographs to contribute towards making the world a better place.

But, before you begin, start by making an ethical checklist.

Have you renounced authorship and photographed anonymously? Are your subjects ‘participants’ rather than ‘others’? Have you used you legal powers to de-monetise the image? Making no personal profit and using your legal protection to ensure that others cannot profit from it either?

That would be a good start and might begin to convince me that you’re interested in real change, rather than driven by rampant careerism.

* I use this term in reference to Marx’s idea of workers’ alienation from the product of their labour, here, the subject is transformed into a ‘performer’ against his or her will, to illustrate and fuel economically and politically motivated debates to which he or she will never contribute, save for the decontextualized image of her suffering. In fact, most subjects of this type will never see the image of themselves in whatever context they are shown and shall never intellectually contribute to its meaning


Levi Strauss, D. (2003). The Documentary Debate

Rosler, M. (1981). In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others

World Press Photo (2015). Previous Winners



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Jamie Dormer-Durling

Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.