Photographic Ethics

The way you take pictures is as much a part of the craft as anything else. That’s what takes it out of nuts and bolts, and lens filters, and what kind of camera you use: how you carry yourself while you’re there.

Where ethics really play in is whether you set up a picture or not. I want people to trust my photographs, so I try to do them as realistically as possible. But setting up a picture is not a horrible thing, if that’s what it requires. The important question is: is it misleading? If it is, then it starts to cross a boundary. I can’t stand a photograph that I’ve made, no matter how cool it is, if I set it up. It’s dismissed. It’s one that you will not see. The pictures that I care about the most are real moments, not cropped, not set up, and that have kind of an energy.

If I’m doing a story about wars and I pay somebody to pose with a gun, that’s not cool. But if he has a gun and he’s asking for money, and that’s my assignment, then I have to try to find that line. But there’s other ways to do it. I try to make friends, and make them want me to photograph them. I’m much better off if they actually want me to photograph them. But in some places that’s just not going to happen. It’s one of the toughest parts of what we do.

[Nick's Take was written in 2001. As of June 2011, NGM requires that photographers submit all of their raw digital files for every assignment.] For years, Geographic has made photographers turn in their raw film, one of the reasons being so they know how a picture was made. If you only see one frame, like Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl, you don’t know how it was made. But if you see the boxes of film, and see that, oh, Steve shot 28 rolls of film here, then you know the circumstances of the image and how it was made.

I notice a lot of photographers — and many professional ones — who think they’re allowed to be an asshole because they’ve got a camera. They’ll be on a safari and think, oh, this masai mara warrior in his beautiful traditional clothing is here for me, and then they’ll get really rude and upset when that masai asks them for $10. These photographers would flip out if somebody did the same thing to them. Flip out.

The same manners you would use without the camera, you should use with it — and maybe even more so. I try to make friends, and make them want me to photograph them. I’m much better off if they actually want me to photograph them. But in some places that’s just not going to happen. It’s one of the toughest parts of what we do. But if you leave things as good as you found them, if they feel good about your visit, then they’ll think Americans aren’t not so bad. They’re not all ugly and fat.

A lot of times I think those lines are crossed because photographers have deadlines, or they think the camera gives them a license to kill. I saw myself do that a few times and I didn’t like it, so I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. Sometimes I’ll still make the wrong choices, no doubt. Sometimes I’ll say, I’m going to get this picture no matter what, and I rush in. But I realize I’ve stepped over the boundary. I feel it when I go too far. And those that don’t feel it, well, I kind of feel sorry for them. If you’re not that sensitive, then there’s something missing from your makeup.

In 99% of the places I work, there’s no one there but me, and I think the pack mentality that’s created by having ten or twenty or a hundred photographers in the same place lets photographers get away with a lot more bad behavior. Not me. I’m called on it. The village mama will say hey, you’re out of line. And gorillas are even more direct — because as soon as you screw up with gorillas, all hell breaks loose.

A lot of people get out of photography when they realize that it is an invasion of privacy, and if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to learn how to invade privacy in a soft manner. Being southern probably helps me. I was taught to be polite — whether it’s a real politeness or not, that’s another discussion.

I question and chastise myself about photos of Sita, the tigress. Was I pushing it? Was I going over the line? Was my excuse of trying to save tigers okay enough for me to put the kind of pressure I was putting on this tigress? And so I battled with that, and I think about it whenever I’m in a sensitive situation. But my rule of thumb is, when I leave, did the characters feel like they got something out of it. Maybe then it’s not so bad. But there seems to be a refrain that a lot of photographers seem to use, that getting a photograph trumps all of your other sensibilities. I just don’t think that’s right.