The ethical conundrums of the documentary photographer.

Documentary photography is generally thought of as being the genre with the most ethical responsibility. For this article, I will be highlighting and exploring these concerns about ethical representation, as well as concluding with how important these considerations really are. I will include two case studies of different photographic projects to further illustrate the conundrums of documentary photography.


The first project I will be dissecting is Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’. Over the decades, his work has gained equal amounts of notoriety and popularity, and he has become one the most recognised British photographers of his time.  The second case study I will be analysing is Nick Waplington’s ‘The Living Room’, which explores similar themes to ‘The Last Resort’. While both projects have their obvious parallels (in which I intend draw comparisons from), the ethical considerations behind the work differs greatly. Therefore, I feel as though they both are good examples of the ethical responsibilities of a documentary photographer.


Firstly, before jumping into the case studies, it’s important to understand what documentary photography is. The Tate Organisation describes documentary photography simply as ‘a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events’. Yet many believe the definition to be more complex than this. There have been countless debates throughout photographic history as to what classifies as true documentary, and there are several questions to consider when defining the genre.


Some of these often-considered questions include issues of consent, audience manipulation, staging and cropping, and interference. Arguably the most famous example of a manipulated documentary image is Dorothea Lange’s ‘The Migrant Mother’. It is only in the other images from this shoot that the audience realises the subjects are fully aware their being photographed by Lange, and are posing in a way to illustrate a story the photographer wishes to portray.


War photography is arguably intrinsically glued to documentary, whereby the same ethical considerations are applied. The biggest consideration when capturing human suffering in this way is if the photographer should get involved. A good example of this is pictured in ‘The Vulture and the little girl’ taken by Kevin Carter. Once this image was published there was a huge outcry of people questioning why he didn’t do anything to help. Once again, this highlights another ethical consideration for the documentary photographer; Is it more important to capture the image and document it for the whole world to see, or help when you get the chance?


It may simply be that photography is a medium that cannot truly document and is instead inherently biased. Annette Kuhn highlights the ultimate power the photographer over their images in her 1995 book ‘Family Secrets: Acts of memory and imagination’. She gives the example of an image of herself as a young child, holding a new pet and appearing happy, which consequently paints a picture of a perfect family. Although, what the audience doesn’t know is that this image is being taken by her father, of which their relationship with one another has always been turbulent. This highlights how a photographer can massively distort the truth, by instead creating and selecting images which reflect a fantasy of how they wish things to be.


Despite these criticisms of the nature of image taking, many believe that these ethical concerns are obsolete, and that a photographer should just take pictures. In her book ‘On Photography’ Susan Sontag states that “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.” Personally, I disagree with this statement, and I believe the photographer has a responsibility to at least consider the consequences of their work. Yet sometimes I feel as though the best or most honest images are captured when some of these ethics are abandoned.  I aim to explore these questions and issues throughout my two case studies.

As stated in the introduction, I will begin by studying Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’. Released in 1986, in the height of Thatcher’s Britain, this book was the first of Parrs widely celebrated colored publications. The book depicts the British seaside resorts of the time, at their busiest times of year when filled with hundreds of people and strewn with litter. These seaside resorts grew in popularity in a period where poverty became widespread, with many families taking vacations on their own shores instead of travelling abroad. There are many ways in which he depicts the subjects of this project which could be construed as being negative depictions of the working class. The people shown appear dirty, stupid and inconsiderate, almost as if being mocked by Parr. The images are often taken from such strikingly unflattering angles with harsh flash, that they would make anyone appear greasy and overweight. In an interview with, Parr admits this harshness was intentional: "Plus, I used flash, which adds a surreal touch and somehow that makes it more real. It is hyper real, in a sense." This quotation may reflect a separation or lack of consideration for the subjects, by turning them into something ‘hyper-real’, he is making them his own, instead of representing them truthfully.

Art critic David Lee is among many who take a disliking to Parrs depiction of the working class. He is quoted saying “our historic working class, normally dealt with generously by documentary photographers” “appear fat, simple, style less, tediously conformist and unable to assert any individual identity.” Even in the interview mentioned above, Parr also states that as a child he was never taken to ‘trashy seaside resorts’ which immediately suggests a subconscious belief to be higher than those photographed. There is also apparent mocking of the subjects in the introduction of book written by Gerry Badger, whereby he describes the locations as being “at its tackiest, strewn with litter and under severe pressure from the hungry hordes looking to feed and amuse their kids.”


It is also important to observe that by capturing people in such massive crowds they appear dehumanized, almost as if they were bugs in a colony. It becomes difficult for the audience to acknowledge their individual humanities, which may have been a conscious decision from Parr. However, one could argue that by shooting these images in such a cold way, he does allow his audience to consider the huge scale of poverty in Thatcher’s Britain.


When considering if Parr is exploiting his subjects it is vital to note, that whether intentional or not, he is profiting from the images of others who are much less wealthy than himself. A lot of the people depicted seem shocked or unaware that the photographer is taking an image of them, this suggests that he was inconsiderate of the subjects feeling, and perhaps made no attempt to ask for their permission. You could also argue his exploitation by his prioritising of image taking over the safety of others. For example, there are a few images where children are depicted in potentially dangerous situations, such as babies being left to burn in the sun or kids running barefoot through litter.


Despite the overwhelming criticism towards this work, many subsequently defend it. One of the main defenses from his audience, is that Parr’s work mocks all social classes. In his 1989 book ‘The cost of living’, there is a mockery towards the upper middle classes of Britain, which suggests an unbiased misanthropy. Gerry Badger also defends the book in its introduction by raising the question as to whether the critics were just seeing their own class prejudices reflected through the work, instead of Parrs.


However, it is interesting to wonder if it is photography itself at fault. To quote Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they have never seen themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”. When thinking from this point of view, the process of photographing others can be a cruel one, yet the photographer is not as much in fault as the very process of photographing. Perhaps all photography is inherently exploitative, which is something Parr states when defending his photography. When asked if work is exploitative on his personal website, Parr answered: ‘I think that all photography involving people has an element of exploitation, and therefore I am no exception.’


As far as my own personal conclusion of the work, I feel as though there are too many things pointing towards an unfair depiction of the working class. Parr has managed to capture his own beliefs throughout the project, and in that case perhaps this work isn’t a true document. There are complex issues behind a topic such as poverty, ones which I believe, can’t be solved by simply walking up to people and snapping a picture of them. Overall, there appears to be very little ethical consideration behind the work. 

Set in the same time frame of the mid 80s, Nick Waplington began photographing two different families over a period of four years. He eventually compiled these images into his first book titled ‘Living Room’ published in 1991. The subjects were made up of Waplington’s own family friends, all living in the same working class area in Nottingham. The documentary style photographs consist of raw and candid depictions of everyday family life and take place predominantly within their own homes.


When contemplating if there is an exploitative nature behind this work, we must acknowledge that because the subjects have consciously allowed the photographer into their personal environments, they must have agreed to having their image taken. Also by allowing Waplington to photograph their homes, something which is usually so private, it immediately suggests that there is a mutual trust between subject and photographer.  There is no sense of the photographer even being present, the subjects often seeming so relaxed that it creates a strange sense of voyeurism within the audience. Therefore, it doesn’t seem as though Waplington is interfering with the subject with any ideology, unlike Parr who portrays his own ideas of people onto his subjects.

By choosing the intimate location of the living room as the backdrop of the project, he allows his audience to build up a sense of the model’s characters. Everything from their fashion choices to their body language when sitting near one another, act is a way that humanises his subjects. By the end of the book you start to feel as if you know these people personally. Parr’s project arguably works in the opposite way, whereby he takes no time to get to know anyone and he makes them appear cold and detached. Consequently, this means that as an audience, we feel no connection to the pictured subject’s humanity.


Waplington’s depiction of the family is also a very broad one, that captures both good and bad moments. By taking pictures of everything from the families fighting, laughing together and ignoring each other, he highlights a more honest dynamic than pictured in sitcoms and traditional family portraits. Author Sophie Howarth describes this brutally honest version of family in her book ‘Family Photography Now’. She is quoted saying: ‘they come together, but also fall apart. They love and protect their different members, but they also reject and confine them. Families are retainers for both loyalty and cruelty, altruism and selfishness; in short, for all our best and worst characteristics.’ I feel as though this quote stands as a good explanation of what Waplington has managed to capture in this project, with careful ethical consideration.

However, as a project ‘Living Room’ is not completely without fault. One could argue that it still displays some negative stereotypes of the working class. For example, being obese, having lots of children and being messy. Although these stereotypes don’t seem to be enforced by the photographer, and they are nowhere near to the same level of those shown in Parr’s work.


In conclusion, I feel as though there are good and bad things about both of my case studies. Although one thing that has been confirmed for me, is that when challenging yourself with projects such as these, which draw attention to notions of class and family, you should try to be respectful towards the subjects. Therefore, I find Waplington’s ethical approach to be superior. Contrastingly, by being so detached from the subject, one could argue that Parr captures more honest, unbiased images. To quote Sontag once more ‘a photograph is not just an image, it’s an interpretation of the real’. Perhaps both photographers were just capturing what they saw, what they believed to be real. And while that process is inherently biased, is it un-ethical? What one finds to be offensive another wouldn’t bat an eyelid, so it’s all about where the photographer draws their own line, there is no inherent wrong or right. Ultimately, I believe documentary photography should be about the lasting impact of the image. If the photo brought about discussion or social change then surely that is a positive thing. Yet despite this, I believe all photographers have a responsibility to at least consider these ethical problems before publishing work.