The Art of Photography: A Blessing or a Curse?

By Lily Bourne

Simply put, the ability to capture a moment in time and preserve it in a tangible way changed life as we know it. As the first iterations of cameras developed in the early 19th century, scientists began to see the endless possibilities this type of technology could bring and by the end of the century, the first colored photograph had been taken, as well as the first photos of movement. These breakthroughs opened the floodgates for more and more development, as photography rapidly approached the level we recognize now, allowing humans to understand reality in a completely new way. As Dr. Nickel, a professor of Modern Art, History of Photography, and American Art at Brown University, states: 

“I’ll never walk on the moon or witness the inside of a tornado, but photography allows me to know something about those experiences. The digital revolution represents a new magnitude of availability of photographic surrogates for experience and new ways of sorting and sharing them.”

With these society-altering effects, photography has made a strong impact on life as we know it, but it is not without its faults. Especially in a new age of AI technology and innovations, many have begun to question the future of photography, and whether or not it is worth saving. 

Although photography allows humans to expand their perspective and view others’ realities, it comes with a new set of difficult-to-tackle ethical dilemmas. For example, if a photographer witnesses a heartbreaking catastrophe and snaps a picture at just the right time, is it morally right for them to sell that photograph to others? Should they be allowed to profit off of someone else’s suffering? For those already familiar with this topic, this hypothetical ethical question may bring to mind a specific tragic instance in the world of photography. In 1994, Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for a photograph he took during his trip to Sudan. At the time, Sudan was struck by an intense famine that left many of its people starving, including the subject of Carter’s photo–a young girl being stalked by a vulture as she crawled toward one of the United Nation’s feeding centers. The photograph brought attention to the intense suffering occurring in Sudan but also came with a price. Carter committed suicide three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his work, and although he left no official message, many believed it was due to his guilt of not helping the child in his photograph. After the impact of such a powerful picture, the ethics of photography in the midst of tragedies came into question. While there is no clear resolution to this discussion, journalist Ashley Norman describes a photographer’s camera “as the visual voice of those who have lost everything in war and cannot open the eyes of those fortunate enough to be safe at home with their families. It is not the mission of a war photojournalist to exploit human tragedy; it is their hope to expose its horrors”. Norman, and many others, argue that photographers bring awareness and can inspire change through their work. Photographs like Carter’s allow people to gain an understanding of the reality of suffering in the world and force society to acknowledge and take action against them, or else willfully ignore the clear injustices they have been shown. 

Although war photography seems like the most glaringly obvious instance of possible exploitation in the world of photography, there are two other sectors that seem to garner just as much controversy: street photography and paparazzi. Street photography has come under scrutiny numerous times, as many people object to the concept of being photographed without their consent in public. However, by the strict terms of the law, street photography is legal in the United States as an extension of the right to freedom of expression. The community surrounding street photography makes many attempts to destigmatize the practice and even has a code of ethics that encourages photographers to be mindful of their subject, provide context about the photograph, and participate in a “give and take” mentality. By this logic, if a photographer takes a photo of someone struggling, they should attempt to give something in return. These ideals bring a better theoretical idea of street photography but don’t erase the possible ethical dilemmas that still may arise within the confines of the law. A perfect example of lawful, but almost always unethical, photography can be found in the paparazzi. The paparazzi, photographers who aggressively follow celebrities for the purpose of taking candid photos, have received increasing backlash as social media has risen. These celebrities, who once seemed almost a part of an entirely separate world, are now more similar to everyday people than ever, and the invasive nature of the paparazzi becomes increasingly questionable. Many celebrities have begun to speak out against these stalkers, who attempt to photograph them in compromising, unflattering, and private situations. These photographers use the art to broadcast another perspective to the world, but not necessarily one that was meant to be shared. Because of these invasive, unethical dilemmas often found in photography, many have come to the conclusion that the hobby may be more of a curse than a blessing.

However, it is important to note the sheer power of photography. While it may be the cause of discomfort or upset, it can also be an outlet for creativity and an instrument for change. Documentary photography began with Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, two photographers in early-20th century New York. Jacob Riis’s pictures of the living conditions of urban immigrants in his book “How the Other Half Lives” led to urban reforms in less-favored cities. Lewis Hine’s images of immigrants at Ellis Island and child labor in factories led to the promotion of the Child Labor Protection Act. The work of these two men set off the photojournalist movement, allowing for a new approach to documenting life in society and raising awareness. Many modern photographers use their work to support certain causes, like the members of 100 for the Ocean. This talented group united 100 photographers in selling prints of their ocean photography to raise money for conservation efforts. 

The most well-known photographs very often depict the extremes of human emotion, with images of starving children and destroyed lives in stark contrast alongside soldiers returning from war and joyful reunions. Thus, photography becomes unique in its ability to depict every aspect of humanity without room for false interpretation. While the art may have its ethical difficulties, it is impossible to imagine a world without photography, and there is no real way for it to be replaced or eliminated. Instead of invasion of privacy and exploitation, photography should be used for its original purpose; to amplify the stories of the silent, to share the experiences of the world with one another, and to bring awareness to the realities of humankind–both the good and the bad.