A Note on “Visual Ethics”

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I’ve recently been working on revisions of some of my textbooks and have been reading more and more about how easily images can be manipulated or falsified. I remember reading Kenneth Brower’s galvanizing essay “Photography in an Age of Falsification” in The Atlantic over twenty years ago, and it’s an essay I often taught for the cogent argument it makes. But that seems like more than a lifetime ago now: I was concerned then about the issues Brower raised (he offered fascinating examples of images being manipulated, even in National Geographic, to make them “better”), but I couldn’t have imagined—and I don’t expect Brower could have imagined—the proliferation of technologies to aid in producing fake videos and altered images of every conceivable kind. It now seems important—imperative even—for us to ask students to examine their own use of images and to talk about and explore the ethical implications of the choices they and others are making today.


Among the books and articles I have read, Paul Martin Lester’s work really caught my attention. He is a professor at the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas and has written widely on the ethics of photography. In an interview, he says he begins every class by describing what he calls the most unethical photo he ever took: he was assigned as a young photographer to cover a reunion of two long-lost brothers at an airport. He was there, with all his cameras, waiting for the brothers to emerge from the plane when a very famous movie star emerged. When she saw him and the cameras, he says, she screamed and turned her face to the wall before pulling herself together and walking toward him. Stunned, he automatically snapped photos of her in this very vulnerable pose, an action he has regretted ever since.


So I ordered his book, Visual Ethics, and have read it with great interest, even though it is intended for students and practicing photographers. In it, he describes what he calls every photographer’s “personal journey” and opens with this question: “How can you possibly be expected to be objective and subjective, impassive and emotional, uninvolved and engaged given the physical constraints, technological changes, and sociological pressures that the mass communications profession offers?” His one-word answer: “Ethics.”

The key to produce work that aids the common good and satisfies your need for storytelling is a continual, inquisitive, and consistent path toward ethical behavior. (xii)


Lester uses his own journey as an example throughout the book, but in addition it is crammed with additional examples drawn from his long career in the field, many of them mini-cases that make for challenging class discussion and examination. He also deals with issues of misinformation, focusing in chapter 7 on infographics and cartoons and sowing how inattention to detail, sloppy design, and overpowering “decorations” can mislead and confuse audiences, even if the designers are not intentionally doing so.


Lester concludes with a meditation on empathy—the complexities surrounding the concept and its embodiments, the need for more of it in all aspects of our lives, and the challenge to those he teaches. They should, he says, always attempt to 1) be empathetic, and 2) be ethical. The Professional Photographers Association of America agrees, and they have developed a code of ethics as a result. It makes for very interesting reading too—and provides additional material to bring to students, who need to be thinking hard (along with the rest of us) about how their own use of images and visuals follows such guidelines.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1239384 by Robert-Owen-Wahl, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.