You may find yourself thinking about a small research project that you would like to undertake. You may want to conduct some interviews, collect some data, take a few photos and maybe even get a research participant to take some photos for you. Piece-of-cake. Right? Before you race off with your tail wagging, you may wish to consider such things such as emotional contagion (a type of word-driven emotional network infection), the right to privacy, participant consent and visual contextual framing. Most importantly a research project should be based upon ethically responsible principles and convey the resulting collected data as contextually truthful as possible. Judith Butler, In her paper Torture and the Ethics of Photography (2007), discusses photographs which have been used as evidence of torture in war:
On the one hand, [the photographs] are referential; on the other hand, they change their meaning depending on the context in which they are shown in the purpose of which they are invoked. […] The photos are published within newspapers, but the newspapers also make selections: some photos as shown, and others are not.
As a researcher you may wish to investigate the subject of torture and war and in this scenario you may need to use visual evidence in your report. The images you choose will inadvertently reflect your own reference point. As Butler says, “[the] photos have travelled beyond the original place where they were taken, the place depicted in the photos themselves” and have therefore to some degree lost the original context. Are you still presenting factual visual data? Your research project gets a little more complex.
Fortunately, Penny Tinkler (2013) gives us very clear explanation of what are the “ethical issues involved in using photographs and [the] research and legal issues relating to privacy and copyright”. This is like a warm and comfortable blanket for researchers to throw over themselves when they enter the realm of visual ethics. In this chapter of the book Using photographs in social and historical research, Tinkler covers three research areas pertaining to photos-the taking of them, the getting of them and finally, the way in which they are presented or framed.
It is important to consider the role of the digital image within the fields of research i.e. it has changed the way in which we capture images and the timeframe in which we can present them; everything is much more immediate and spontaneous. Researchers beware! As Tinkler points out, “in recent years there has been a dramatic shift in perceptions of the rights of individuals to privacy”. Therefore it is quite clear that as researchers, we can’t use all those amazing and sometimes embarrassing photos, and “covert documentary” photography is definitely passé, not to mention, unethical.
Not only does a researcher need to document, collate and catalogue images used for research, there is also the issue of ownership and reproduction of photos. You are fairly safe if you remember the old adage “give credit where credit’s due” and obtain permission to use photographs that are not your own. The subjects of the photograph also need to be protected; the three main issues are privacy, anonymity, and dignity/harm. (Tinkler 2013) If a subject in a photograph can be identified, it is the responsibility of the researcher to make sure these issues have been addressed.
Yes, there is a lot to consider and even more work to be done. However, I feel sure that the responsible researcher in you is just dying to get started. So what are you waiting for?
Tinkler, Penny 2013, ‘Ethical issues and legalities’, Using photographs in social and historical research, SAGE, London, pp. 195-208, viewed 19 April 2015,
Butler, Judith 2007, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 951 – 966, viewed 19 April 2015,