Ethics in Visual Research
One recurring ethical dilemma in relation to photography is the photographing of children. Photographing children as part of family photography is generally understood – at least in Euro-American contexts – as ok, providing that children are photographed by members of their own family, and the audiences for those photos are also mainly members of their own family. But when those parameters are breached, controversy often erupts.
This exercise asks you to look at a particular example of this breaching: when women who are professional photographers take photographs of their own children, which are then displayed in photography galleries and published in books.
First, choose one of these four photographers:
- Sally Mann, who photographed her children and whose book Immediate Family sparked huge controversy in 1992;
- Betsy Schneider, whose exhibition in Sptiz Gallery, London in 2004 of photographs of her children was accused of being photos were pornographic;
- Tierney Gearon. Police threatened to remove three of her pictures from an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2001;
- Ann Noble, who photographed her daughter Ruby for ten years. Noble's work has not generated the same debates as Mann, Schneider, Gearon or Henson.
Click on their name to access online resources about their work. Browse through it now and note down your initial reactions.
You might also like to look at the work of Australian photographer Bill Henson, who had twenty photographs of adolescents (not his children) removed by police from the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.
All these photographers apart from Ann Noble have been accused of making pornographic images of young people. Read the three papers referenced below, which talk through the issues. As you read through the papers, think about the ethics of taking photographs of young people for public display.
Edge, S., and G. Baylis (2004) 'Photographing children: the works of Tierney Gearon and Sally Mann', Visual Culture in Britain, 5: 75-89.
Higonnet, A. (2009) 'Pretty babies', Index on Censorship, 38: 104 -116.
Hinkson, M. (2009) 'Australia’s Bill Henson scandal: notes on the new cultural attitude to images', Visual Studies, 24: 202-213.
Think about the ethical issues raised by the work of the photographer you have selected. Think about:
- the rights of the individuals involved: the children, the photographer, the parents, the gallery owner, the various audiences who look at the photographs;
- think about how ethical issues shift as the site of the image shifts: that is, are the ethics of the photography different at the site of the making of the photograph, at the site of the image itself, and at the sites of its audiencing?
- think about how the question of gender plays out. Remember Laura Mulvey's (1989: 19) argument that 'in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female'. Is there a sense in which these women photographers are recapturing 'the male gaze'? Indeed, do they offer a 'maternal gaze'? What difference, if any, does it make that they are women, and mothers? Does your answer affect how you see Bill Henson's work?
- what about age as a power relation? Does the power of the experienced and skilled photographer, whether male or female, always dominate the younger person pictured?
- finally, think about how you would design a consent form for your chosen photographer's project.
Ann Noble's project photographing her daughter is called Ruby's Room. You can see some of it here:
http://www.thearts.co.nz/artist_page.php&aid=1 (click on Image Galleries)
There's a video about the project on YouTube, from the Musuem of New Zealand musuem Te Papa Tongarewa.
And here's a video of Ann Noble talking at Queensland Art Gallery about a range of her work, including Ruby's Room:
Mann's key project photographing her children is called Immediate Family. You can see her work here:
There's a review of a retrospective of Mann’s work at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, 2010, here:
There's also a film about Mann on YouTube in three parts:
Betsy Schneider photographs her children. You can see her work here:
http://betsyschneider.net/. Look at 'Scenes' under the 'bodies of work' tab.
Police were called to her exhibition in the Sptiz Gallery, London, in 2004, after visitors complained that photos were pornographic:
There's an interview with Betsy Schneider in the Phoenix New Times:
You can see Tierney Gearon's work here:
Police threatened to remove three of her pictures from her exhibition at the Saatchi Galleryin London in 2001. Tierney writes about that incident here:
There's a YouTube video about some of her more recent work 2006, The Mother Project:
You can see some of Bill Henson's photographs here:
New South Wales police and detectives from the Child Protection and Sex Crimes Unit, acting on a complaint from an anti-child abuse campaigner, confiscated 20 of his photographs from the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia, in 2008. You can see the exhibition in question here:
YouTube has a news report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with interviews from those both pro- and anti- the Oxley show: