“Every time we raise the camera to our eyes, we become morally responsible to “the photographed” as well as the viewers. Photography cannot be just a privilege, it’s a responsibility that should not be abdicated.”

― Neeta Satam


Ethics in photography plays a vital role in its continuation as an essential medium of art and journalism. Ethics is integrity, truthfulness, honestly, and respect. I talk about remaining true to the business of photography because I’ve seen, more times than I’d hate to admit, photographers trying to find a competitive edge, be different, or acquire an advantage at the expense of the industry as a whole. It doesn’t have to be that way and that becomes a problem when people decide to do photography with no moral code or respect for the business or fellow photographers. 

I’m a fan of American Football. I grew up playing it. I sat next to my dad who is a football and track and field guy. He watched football every Sunday as soon as we got home from church. As a kid, I tried to understand the game, but it seemed like there was just a bunch of guys running around like an amalgam of angry antagonized ants. I could not see how he knew what each penalty was before the announcer called it. 

“HOLDING! Number 73!” he say aloud, talking to himself. And then the referee would turn on his mic, face the crowd and repeat exactly what my father said.

Football is the perfect example here. Everyone on the field wants to win. Everybody trains hard, practices, watches film to know how to defend a player or trick plays. But then you have some who are dirty players who purposefully try to injure an opposing player with nasty tackles, late hits, or targeting. Instead of competing head to head, they’d rather win playing dirty. This is how I see photographers who don’t respect the game. They don’t act in the interest in the league as a whole which affects their own livelihoods.


Most prevalent today are dirty photographers who steal other people’s work. An artist’s work is their intellectual property, but getting into the legalese on this topic is the subject of a plethora of authored works, already. The point here is highlighting its effect on photography and that essentially is the corrosion of trust and the diminishment of inspiration. Theft of intellectual property is no different from a convenience store owner watching thieves walk out with product. And when photographers steal, it sets a bad precedent in the minds of everyone else… as if all photographers are stealing. 

And it’s not so simple as a nefarious person right-clicking on someone else’s shot and calling it their own. How many times have you heard, “Oh, I found it on the internet!” or “I just pulled it off the web.” And then they print it on t-shirts or card stock and sell it. That’s theft! I think this first became prominent with music and movies and any of us can argue who suffers more. In either case, it’s become commonplace and accepted as plausible theft. Below are a summary of statistics from an article by BetterStudio.com, “31 Image Theft Statistics and Facts You Need To Know in 2023“, January 14, 2023

Online Image Theft Statistics (Editor’s Choice)

  • A total of 2.5 billion images are stolen every day
  • Every day, image theft costs 536.5 billion Euros
  • 64% of professional photographers reported theft more than 200 times
  • Social media users and bloggers steal 49% of images online
  • 64% of photographers experience image theft, but 33% do not take legal action
  • Disabling right-click menu is the best way to protect against image theft
  • The watermarks of 68% of stolen photographers were removed
  • Nearly 40% of full-time photographers cannot afford to take legal action
  • U.S. leads in illegal image use with 33.90 percent
  • Unlicensed images are typically 1920 x 1080 HD size

So the prevalence in intellectual property theft in general, whether that be photography or any artistic medium, has the potential to put artists at risk. The business can’t survive without protections, but protections would not be necessary if people controlled their desire to steal. Fat chance on that, though. Thieves have always existed and always will. But everybody doesn’t have to be one. Otherwise, we become the flash mob of thieves hitting Louis Vuitton stores.


“There are no ethical proposals, there are only ethical acts” 

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Consent and Privacy

When I refer to Consent, I’m speaking in terms of permission relating to taking a photo as well as it’s use within the confines of contractural agreement or moral implications. Privacy is carried in the same bucket. If you don’t have consent, you are invading a person’s rights to privacy. You may have a model release that gives you consent to take photos for your website and portfolio. But if you use those images in a commercial ad promoting a pharmaceutical drug, or a voting proposition, or a product that may embarrass the model, you have violated someone’s rights. 

Drones and Cameras with Super Zooms have become popular in the last decade. Sure, they have practical uses. Who hires a helicopter to fly a photographer around for arial shots when you can spend a fraction of that with a 4-propeller drone with an articulating camera that shoots 8k video? But now every country has laws regulating and in some case discouraging the use of drones within its borders. I can’t travel with a drone because I may travel from one country to the next which doesn’t allow drones. Nicaragua does not allow you to bring a drone into its country and will confiscate it as contraband. I can’t recall which country, but it allows drones, however you need a permit to fly it, which is VERY expensive and takes a long time to get. Thailand allows drones, but if you fly one unregistered, you could get 5 years in prison!

All this being said, Consent and Privacy considerations in photography have the potential to instill mistrust and distaste for photography and photographers. Think about it relative to politics. Once a politician gets caught lying or acts in a manner that is ill-favored among the constituents, they lose faith and the politician ends his career. An epidemic in consent and privacy violations becomes the George Santos of photography. And once that happens, regulations and crackdowns are soon to follow. 


Contextual/Staging = Misinformation

The biggest violators of Ethical standards are the ones using images out of context for the purposes of  creating a different narrative that belies its proper context. Talk about eroding trust! Social Media has become originis non grata for misinformation campaigns. Grotesque governments and odious organizations spend billions proliferating lies, fear, war, and death to undermine free societies and stampede human rights. At one time, a meme used to be bothersome and annoying, but fun in some ways. I remember explaining what a meme was to my mother when Facebook first became available to the public. 

Now, bad information is so widespread and rampant, we have to first fact-check it with other sources before we can believe or act on what we see. I don’t have empirical data to back me up, but I’ll venture to say a vast majority get duped into believing what they see with no regard to checking sources and creditability. Cracking down on theft and privacy infringements is a bit more clean-cut than trying to regulate misinformation. The US has freedom of speech laws that make shutting down intentionally misleading content difficult. In addition, or at least for now, social media platforms have been left alone to self-regulate. But even now, Twitter has gone rogue and Facebook is backtracking on their policy to bar misinformation in lieu of allowing it and thus bringing in more profits. Manipulated images and videos are at the forefront of these misinformation campaigns.



My concerns address a wide variety of issues that plague photographers and the industry of photography. Ethics plays a large part in how we view the value of photography. Theft, consent, and misinformation are only a few of the possible points to address. But I could write a book on cheating scandals in contests via improper photo manipulation, staging compositions (physically manipulating the environment before taking the photo), as well as baiting (feeding) wildlife into a composition so you can get your shot. We could also cover trespassing and other law-breaking acts photographers do to get the picture they want. And don’t think for a second that I’m speaking self-righteously. I’ve been just as guilty and even banned from some popular spots because of not following the rules. I can admit I was wrong. I knew better and I should have been better.

Leica announced the Leica M11-P as the first camera that features photo credentials to guarantee authenticity. That’s how prevalent the need for truth in photography has become. 

“In 2019, Adobe, The New York Times, and Twitter partnered to solve that problem by founding the Content Authority Initiative (CAI) in November. (Twitter left CAI after Elon Musk purchased the company.) CAI, which now boasts over 200 partners, gave itself the difficult task of finding a “long-term, holistic solution” for verifying the authenticity of photos. In 2021 it joined with another initiative called Project Origin to form the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA).” – Matthew S. Smith, 17 NOV 2023, IEEE.Org

I want to do the right thing every time I hold up my camera, post a photo, or search for a shot I need. It’s not always easy when you look around and realize doing the right thing looks like it might make you lose a gig, make less money, or get left behind while others exploit situations that benefit them, but harm the rest of us. You’ll have to pick which battles you want to fight and what hill you choose to risk it all on. But I think if you are smart or can discuss dilemmas with mentors, you can still find yourself on the top of the hill holding up your flag with a bag of money to your name.

“Photography ethics means following a set of moral principles and guidelines when taking and sharing photos. It involves considerations like respecting people’s privacy, obtaining consent when necessary, and not manipulating images to deceive or mislead viewers.”

– Ryne Knudson, June 14, 2019. “Five steps for today’s ethical photographer“, Matterport.com