What is Your Ethics Compass Set At?

I ask myself this question somewhat frequently it seems.  What line am I personally willing to cross to capture what I think will be the perfect image.  Do you listen to your inner voice when it is yelling “NO!” at you?  Now you’re asking yourself:  “Dan, what the hell are you talking about?”  I’ll try to explain.

If I view an image that really captures me I normally study how the photographer captured the image.  What intrigues me about the image and draws me into it?  What technique was used to capture the look?  Do I know the answer to these questions or is there something lacking in my skill set that I want to explore more and learn how to do?  I think those are all legitimate questions that help me improve in my craft of photography.  I’m always pushing myself to learn new things.

The ethics question that I referred to in the title of this post refers to something else.  Is it okay to try and totally copy another photographer’s work?  This is where I draw lines for myself and I’m wondering how many others get this same kind of feeling when shooting.

When I was starting out in photography over 30 years ago I would see images and go to locations and shoot things very similar to what I had seen a different photographer shoot.  I think that is common and the way many of us learned how to shoot and about the basics of photography.  It wasn’t my intent to copy another photographer’s work but it was about trying to learn how to get the look they had achieved in their image.  It’s a tip of the hat to the original photographer in a way that says “Your images are awesome and I hope I can be as skilled as you someday!”

The line gets burred however if I go to the exact same location and try to determine exactly where the other photographer stood and include the exact same elements in the frame and shoot at the same time of day etc.  No part of that makes the resulting image something that truly came from me.  I find the concept to be pretty boring actually.  If photography is an art form, which I strongly feel it is, then I need to tell my story in my way and not basically try and plagiarize someone else’s original work.

When my wife was in her late teens and early 20’s she attended an art school in New York City.  She was surprised that the first assignment the class was given was for them all to draw a picture of an apple that the teacher had placed in the front of the classroom on a table.  She thought “How boring this is that tomorrow we will all turn in a drawing of the exact same apple.”  But THAT was the lesson.  The next day 18 artists turned in their “interpretations” of the apple and every one of the drawings were totally unique.  No two drawings had the same shadows, lighting, angle of view, etc.  The whole point of the assignment was to show the students that art was about showing what “you” see and not what everyone else sees.  I’ve done a similar project in photography where the instruction was to photograph an egg.  No two images were the same for the same reasons.  Every photographer looked at the egg a bit differently.  They chose different angles, environments and lit the egg differently using natural light, strobes or whatever their vision was in order to show shadow and shapes to best tell the viewer about the egg.  It is a great lesson to learn.

The “Ethics” question I have refers to things like this:  I see photographs taken in popular locations that I have been to and I know that the photographer climbed over barriers that were put there to protect the environment from erosion or to keep endangered plants from being trampled on for example.  Is that okay?  I’ve also seen wildlife images of species such as owls where its obvious the photographer is baiting the bird with mice in order to get the “perfect shot” of the bird sweeping down and grabbing it while heading directly at the camera.  These unethical practices put wildlife in danger because it disrupts their natural feeding instincts and often puts them closer to roads and environments that can be a further threat to them.  Is that okay too?  Baiting can be easy to spot because I do wildlife photography myself and I study what is the “normal” reaction by animals to humans in their natural environments.  Getting that one great action shot is every wildlife photographers dream.  If you see a photographer that is capturing action image after acting image of wildlife looking directly into the camera while being only a few feet away from them then it’s most likely not natural animal behavior anymore!  No photographer is that lucky!  I want to yell “Stop this practice now!” when I see these types of images but generally bite my tongue not wanting to look like I’m just a jealous photographer because it isn’t my shot.

I admit to climbing a few fences over the years in areas marked “No Trespassing” to capture a landscape image.  These signs are generally posted in areas where the owners don’t want other hunters shooting their game for example which I have no intention of doing.   But still, I saw the signs and crossed anyway to capture an image.  So does that make it right?  No.  I should ask permission and my inner voice is reminding me about it the whole time I’m shooting.  In those circumstances where the light is perfect and it’s only a landscape image my inner voice is justifying to me that this may be an instance where it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than to take the time to get permission.  I know it still doesn’t make it legal or right but I’m admitting to not being perfect here!

So what does your ethical compass tell you to do?  Any thoughts?  Please share!