Writing on photography

Informing for Consent

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from some of the topics I’ve been posting on lately, but I want to pick on the discussion taking place online around Chris Arnade’s photographs of commercial sex workers and the decision of the Bronx Documentary Centre (BDC) to include some of these photographs in their Altered Images exhibition. This exhibition features photography which has been staged or otherwise manipulated, and Arnade’s work is felt to qualify for because he sometimes pays his subjects or becomes involved in their lives.

I’m not really interested in taking sides here, I have good and bad things to say about the actions and words of both sides. However the BDC’s judgement about Arnade’s photographs (summed up in this rather unprofessional e-mail to him) has given rise to a pretty interesting discussion around ethics and consent in photojournalism which I’m keen to follow up. Consent is a topic which remains as problematic as that of manipulation for photographers, but one which by contrast is far less often dragged into the open and discussed. A sense of some of the issues in this debate so far can be found here.

Consent is obviously a spectrum of interactions and agreements, from the implied consent of a nod or someone looking directly into your camera as you photograph them, to the more formal consent of a face to face conversation and the signing of a model release. These implicit and explicit forms of consent are often cited as the benchmark for good journalistic practice, this in spite of the fact that both of these forms of consent have their own share of problems and often are more about protecting the journalist than the subject (particularly in case of things like signing model releases).

Some of the discussion about Arnade’s work has also referred to a third form of permission, known as informed consent, which is a much higher benchmark for consent but rather less understood and much less frequently employed by journalists. Informed consent is concept inherited from medicine, where it is defined by idea that a patient should understand as fully as possible the potential implications of an intervention before it is agreed upon and carried out. There are obviously cases where this is not possible, and these cases can sometimes spark major ethical debates for the medical community about how to act in a patient’s best interest.

As ever the benchmark in journalism for informed consent (when it is occasionally sought) seems to be much lower than in other disciplines. Journalists sometimes talk for example about seeking informed consent by ensuring that subjects are in a lucid state of mind before photographing or interviewing, and explaining to them how and where the material they are helping to produce will be published. True informed consent needs to go much further than this, and needs to include having a thorough and frank discussion with a subject about why they are being photographed and what the possible implications and complications of this decision might be.

Easy as the above is to say, seeking truly informed consent in a journalistic setting into something of a minefield, because unlike the relatively closed and confidential system of healthcare, journalism is necessarily open to the world and participates in a two-way flow of information and influence. The implications and impact of a given piece of journalism are very difficult to anticipate. This is even more problematic for anyone working with photography and photojournalism, given that the reality of photography at the moment is that photographers have little ability to control or predict how and where their images might circulate, and how they might be changed or attributed.

I’ve felt for a while that the only way to help a subject reach anything like an informed decision about whether they want to be photographed or not by me is to explain that beyond the implications of whatever project I’m working on, once that image becomes public potentially anything could happen to it. It could be used by anyone, in any context, and that even as the photographer I have relatively little power to stop that. Naturally this thought is pretty terrifying, which is probably why many people avoid having this conversation, it’s a pretty effective way to encourage someone to say no, but leaving the option to say no wide open to subjects is an important part of responsible journalism, and one which often seems to get shut down far too quickly. As photographers we’re often very vocal about our right to photograph, less often do we discuss what is right to photograph.

A big part of informed consent is also the idea that the context where the decision is made should be non-coercive and that there should not be an undue influence over the consenter by the person seeking consent. This is also problematic because there are often uneven dynamics in journalistic relationships, particularly where they involve working with vulnerable groups like those Arnade photographs. That said it would be easy to raise similar concerns about this photograph of a Liberian child soldier by BDC director Mike Kamber. What both of these examples also demonstrate is that it’s very problematic to try and retroactively extract consent (or the lack of it) from a photograph. We know well that photographs show a very incomplete and selective sliver of events, and to read a split second image as revealing of the dynamics and discussions that have taken place around the moment of it’s making is misleading.

I guess my point in recapping these ideas is that journalists seldom live by the high standards they set for others, that consent is often not nearly as clear cut as saying yes or no, and that if we really think we (let alone our subjects)  know how our photographs are going to circulate, or what fires they might touch off in the world, then we need to think again.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • Lewis I’m very pleased to see that you have raised this discussion as consent plays a critical role in the type of work I do where I seek to challenge stigma around disability. Getting access is vital if I am to properly represent those I’m working with but I have had a number of occasions, not many granted, where the subject or rather their representative has declined. Its become less common as I have a decent body of work behind me which people can reflect on and see that my motives are honest, I have no hidden agenda. (a subject for another blog). I’m often in the situation where permission to take photographs is given by a carer as they take legal control over the subjects daily lives. Thinking back to a situation where I photographed a young disabled girl who told me to ‘F*ck off’ led me to think a lot about the issues you raise here. I justify proceeding in cases like that by making the judgement that the carers and I are doing what we do with best interests in mind. If,however, I feel I am intruding, even when given permission, I will check the situation with all concerned and stop taking pictures if I don’t think its right to continue. Interestingly its that approach which is enabling me to get more and more access into peoples very private lives as they know from talking to others that I will not exploit them.

    I always use the informed consent approach but then found myself in a situation where a ‘celebrity’ with a disabled brother withdrew consent as the extended captions, which were taken directly from an audio recording we did at the time, didn’t fit the message he wanted to communicate. It was some of the best work and most relevant commentary but has never appeared publicly. Despite considerable cost to me and my going to great lengths to explain what I was trying to do with outcomes. It was painful, and reinforced my view of the role of celebrity in society ( another blog subject) but I accepted it and moved on. I have however become more insistent in ensuring my subjects know where they are heading through working with me.

    Now as I start to introduce what I’ve called the ‘accessible conceptual’ to my work its getting more challenging. A family who have worked with previously and have a good relationship with have elected not to get involved in ‘Phi’ because they can’t visualise the outcomes and the impact on their son. I understand and respect that and we have remained friends. I do then need to work differently in that I can’t take photographs and let the concept evolve – I need to package it and be able to show exactly what I’m trying to produce before I can enlist participants and get informed consent.

    I understand the challenges and accept them as I feel its important to or the work would never get done or be shown.

    Thanks fascinating subject – I’m looking forward to hearing other views and watching the conversation evolve


Writing on photography