Reflections on ‘Ethics of Portrait Photography – A Transatlantic View’ by Eli Regan

18th May.  Victoria Gallery. Leggate Theatre. A fantastically photogenic venue for a Photography discussion.

In collaboration, Writing on the Wall Festival and LOOK/15 bring us ‘Ethics of Portrait Photography – A Transatlantic View’. Emma Smith, director of LOOK/15 concedes the title is a slight misnomer and renames it ‘Ethics of Portrait & Urban Photography.’ Onto the speakers:

Jona Frank

Jona Frank grew up in New Jersey, the youngest child of four, and the only girl in a ‘very Catholic family’. Although she went to public school, her three older brothers went to Catholic school and she described her fascination with their uniform and how she would ‘sit and watch’ them every morning. This early childhood notion of being on the periphery of things as an observer as well as her interest in ritual and costume  have found their perfect vehicle through her photography. In her photobook Highschool  (2003), Frank captures the social hierarchies of high school and the many different tribes. Photographing the adolescents individually allows them to flourish away from their tribalism and assigned groups.  Frank enthusiastically describes how through clothing and gesture, she aims to capture the aspirations and identity of particular individuals and subcultures.

Dustin from Jona Frank’s ‘Highschool’ photobook (2003)
Dustin from Jona Frank’s ‘Highschool’ photobook (2003)

One such example is Dustin. His school adopts a policy of ‘you can’t wear dresses at schools’. Dustin gets in touch with an attorney who advises him that this is a breach of his civil rights and results in Dustin’s ‘victory outfit’ sensitively captured by Frank.

Frank then presents us her project called ‘Right’ about an Evangelical college called Patrick Henry. The portraits of the young men in particularly make for uncomfortable viewing. Their clothing mirrors each other, in mimicking gestures that seem designed to stamp out any individuality. Frank notes that sometimes still lives or environmental portraits can encapsulate much more than any straight portrait could. This is particularly true of the following picture included in the RIGHT photobook:

From the photobook ‘RIGHT’ (2008) by Jona Frank
From the photobook ‘RIGHT’ (2008) by Jona Frank

A collective gasp reverberates throughout the Leggate Theatre as we focus on the bumper sticker that reads ‘Smile! You could have been aborted’.  The question of photographing a religious group with radically different ethics to Frank is a recurrent thought of mine throughout Frank’s talk. Frank asserts with quiet understatement ‘It was a real challenge’. In the photographs of the RIGHT book, the young students seem to possess a freakish quality comparable to Arbus’ most disquieting portraits and yet this cannot be said to be true to other subjects that Frank portrays. Perhaps it is her method of 5 X 4 large format camera that lends these portraits their unsettling nature. I can imagine there is a certain awkwardness in posing in front of such a formal set-up (the old portraits of a century ago or more attest to this) but even though by their very nature photographs are static and silent this particular series is the visual equivalent of hearing Tea Party politics through a loudspeaker.  (A few days later on a chance encounter with Frank as I volunteer for LOOK/15 I ask her whether this evangelical college had an agenda of how to be represented. Frank tells me that she isn’t aware that they had, but she actually physically stopped herself from photographing events or people that might seem too strange for fear of being accused that she’d constructed these situations. She says the reality was just what was in front of her and this is what she captured. The notion of reality being so much stranger than fiction is one that Photography exploits well. In this case, Frank’s ethics stopped her from capturing certain scenes that she knew could be construed as mocking.)

Frank’s fifteen minutes are almost up and she hurriedly shows us pictures from The Modern Kids series, work that is shown at WARP Liverpool as part of LOOK/15. The pictures are from a series that she did of Wirral CP Boxing Club. She has also made a documentary film called ‘The Baby Faced Assassin’ about lightweight boxer Paul Butler which is shown at Liverpool’s ‘A Small Cinema’. In an article for The Independent (9.5.2015), Frank asserts that ‘their faces evoke the past’. Perhaps this is down to how she captures them (as mentioned before the formal set up of large format camera) but also the old-fashioned nature of the subject itself – boxing, and their faces themselves.

From the Modern Kids, Jona Frank, (2015)
From the Modern Kids, Jona Frank, (2015)

Louis Quail

Louis Quail, perhaps, out of all the speakers sticks to the brief of the talk in overtly discussing the ethics of photography. In a sense, this is what was asked of him, but it’s a slight shame as he doesn’t have time to show us his photographic work. A documentary and editorial photographer based in London, Quail has been published extensively including the Sunday Times, Guardian Weekend and Marie Claire and has travelled and documented disaster zones such as Haiti, Libya and Afghanistan. His work ‘Desk Job’ is currently being exhibited at Open Eye Gallery as part of Open 1, a group show in Liverpool until 23 August.

Quail discusses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights citing the first article ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ He speaks passionately about being a conscientious photographer and about striving to uphold the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct: ‘Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means’ and ‘Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.’ This last one seems to be particularly relevant to documentary photography, particularly abroad, in disaster zones, etc.

Quail then tells us about Miguel Tovar, an AP photographer who was blacklisted by the AP for cloning out his shadow of a photograph of kids playing football in Argentina. He says how it’s important now more than ever not to use the tools that we have of re-touching through Photoshop and other programmes lest we fall into the extremes of yesteryear citing Stalinist Russia as an example who through the re-touching of negatives ‘vanished’ murdered enemies of the state from their photographic records.

Quail explains cultural variations and how working in different countries has expanded his need to be aware of different societal norms. In Libya, Quail’s fixer is intent in only showing him the anti-Gaddafi side. However, when Quail tries to explore the pro-Gaddafi contingent, his fixer accuses him of being a spy. Quail perseveres and endeavours to balance the story with photographs of both anti-Gaddafi and pro-Gaddafi elements, in order to present a more nuanced view of what’s going on in Libya.

Quail discusses the infamous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Kevin Carter of a vulture watching a starving child in Sudan. Although the picture in itself, says Quail raised enormous amounts of money, it is a tremendously harrowing picture to look at and it brought on accusations of Carter not helping the child. Carter committed suicide not long after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Here, Quail touches on the difficulty of these issues and talks about the discomfiting nature of ‘disaster porn’.

He speaks about how his background in advertising and editorial photography has given him a new way into his subjects. On his website there is evidence of this, as he photographs the aftermath of disasters in Libya, Haiti, etc. The emphasis is on humanely portraying what is going on, on staying with the story and the people. In his post in the LOOK/15 blog, he expands on this explaining that the media did not, in his opinion, reflect the complete reality of what was happening in Haiti, preferring instead to focus on the rioting and looting, instead of the quiet dignity of its people.

 Louis Quail – Claudette, 33, has five kids. She is photographed with her father, Crispin, 66.
Louis Quail – Claudette, 33, has five kids. She is photographed with her father, Crispin, 66.

Quail talks about those perennial, often asked questions ‘Is it ok to beautify horror?’ and ‘Is it ok to wait for the perfect light to take a picture of a corpse?’. In his case, the answer is a resounding no.  I think of Susan Sontag’s 2003 work ‘Regarding The Pain of Others’: ‘The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise and is part of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.’ Quail’s approach runs counter to this, and as such is commendable.

Bryn Davies

Bryn Davies, a Liverpool based fine art and portrait photographer talks to us about photographing, particularly abroad. His photo essay on ‘Noryangjin’ – the fisheries market in Seoul, South Korea is particularly compelling.

Bryn Davies ’Store vendor observing the morning’s activity’ (from ‘Noryangjin)
Bryn Davies ’Store vendor observing the morning’s activity’ (from ‘Noryangjin)

Davies remarks that it’s interesting that some of the people in the market are well into their 70’s and 80’s, an age where in this country, they would be ordinarily claiming pension. He explains that the work ethic between the old and young is very different in South Korea. He opines that the new generation favour education, social media, chain-made coffee while the older generation still champion hard graft. Davies claims his stance is ‘apolitical’ and that he is simply ‘presenting what I see, rather than having an opinion of it’. He says he doesn’t ‘intervene’ but neither does he ‘steal a picture’. The workers of the fisheries are aware that he is there, but they continue to do business, just as Davies quietly documents them, he reports.

This might well be but in choosing those particular subjects – the different cultural approaches to work, food sustainability, dying ways of life, Davies is making a very conscious choice to preserve something of past traditions in the face of homogenised globalisation, and as such this does seem a political choice. I believe him when he says that his approach is non-intrusive and sensitive but photographs by their very nature force us to make choices of what we include or not in the framing and are very subjective, fragmentary representations of what we choose to see.

For his Food of Life project, Davies teams up with Dot Art’s Lucy Byrne, also based in Liverpool. He goes to China to photograph traditions of sourcing food and medicine. According to Davies ‘the project explores the uses of food as the source of medicine, nutrition and hygiene from past traditions’.

Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara, a Chilean born New York based writer and photographer has for four decades documented the decline and renewal of particular cities, returning at regular intervals to intercept changes in ‘the built environment’. He describes himself as an ‘archivist of decline’, a wonderfully succinct way of chronicling his methods of documentation, and says of his approach ‘I stay with buildings’. In a very self-effacing way he says ‘I began as a street photographer. I admired Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt but found that in my pictures I didn’t even come close to them.’ Instead, he embarks on a systematic and long study of various US cities, describing himself, again self-deprecatingly as a ‘walking Xerox machine’.

Sequence of 4 photographs taken by Camilo José Vergara of Fern Street in N. Camden, NJ from 1979–2004.
Sequence of 4 photographs taken by Camilo José Vergara of Fern Street in N. Camden, NJ from 1979–2004.

To create such comprehensive, complete bodies of work Vergara has been single-mindedly persistent and thorough in his documentation of places. He remarks that ‘I always mistrusted portrait photography’, preferring instead to produce environmental portraits, returning to document and re-photograph the changes in the built environment, and understanding by association how the way we interact with our environments is perhaps a truer portrayal of the lives we live as people.

Vergara makes an important point about the uses of certain pictures. He said a picture he had forgotten of a boy in Harlem gained recognition recently from people in the fashion industry. It amused him no end, but this speaks to photography’s ubiquity and its many uses and vehicles for dissemination.

picture 7

Discussion with RedEye’s Paul Hermann

At the end of the very brief talks (fifteen minutes each), Paul Hermann, director of RedEye asks a few questions of the panel – ‘Do you detect a change/are things tighter when it comes to photographing people?’. Louis Quail asserts ‘In the UK you can’t photograph children. Society has decided that everyone is a potential paedophile.’ Vergara agrees ‘It’s very difficult. It’s the first thought that people have’. Frank says ‘People get nervous. ’She talks about getting consent from their parents of some teenagers at a skateboard park to photograph them, but how one mother whose child wasn’t being photographed alerts the police and complains. Bryn Davies says that there is a ‘pressure to do something shocking’, something running completely contrary to his practice. Hermann asks ‘was there ever a picture you wish you’d taken?’ Frank answers by telling us about a formative experience when she’d started to report for a paper about a picture she wishes she hadn’t taken. In an episode that recalls Weegee, or the Jake Gyllenhaal character in the film ‘Nightcrawler’, she recounts being asked to take pictures of a car accident and to get closer to the victim. She decided very firmly that these weren’t the pictures she wanted to take.

Vergara then asserts he has a problem with the word ‘ethics’ in itself and prefers the word ‘instinct’. This is interesting to me, as it seems more reactive to particular, spontaneous situations, rather than a set textbook ‘ethics’. An interesting question then emerges from the audience, as a young woman asks Vergara ‘Aren’t you in danger in stigmatising places/whole neighbourhoods? Aren’t you in danger in propagating ‘ruin porn’? Vergara looks a bit perplexed and doesn’t really answer, almost as if to say – well, it’s done now. It seems a pointed question given that he has dedicated all of his working life to this portrayal. It’s an interesting one, though, as documentary photography has generally documented poorer people and places. It’s (generally)less interested in the rich and prosperous.

I come away from the talk quite surprised that these debates and questions are still happening given the theoretical framework (which seemed fairly critical of documentary photography/photojournalism as a viable genre) which I studied at university for my Photography degree (completed in 2008). But theory does not necessarily always reflect what’s happening in practice. The reality is that pictures are still being made – and the questions that they in turn present will continue to surface. I remember the title of an essay written while an undergrad – ‘Is documentary photography dead?’ (link here  and my dissertation ‘Is photojournalism still relevant in this immediate, digital age?’, etc. I remember emailing Marc PoKempner, a renowned Chicago photojournalist upon seeing his moving pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans one year on appear in a Gary Younge feature in the Guardian in 2006 and his very generous reply: ‘‘Where does the notion of the death of documentary photography come from?  Many practise it, much is published — is it because it can now be digitally manipulated (it could always be manipulated, just with more effort)?  Integrity in photographic reportage has always been the integrity of the photographer and publisher, not a mechanical attribute of the medium itself’

As PoKempner said, the photographs are still being made, although the context in which the pictures are being made has vastly changed.  Photographers must negotiate their approach and re-evaluate their reasons for doing so, whether they call it ‘ethics’, or ‘instinct’ (Vergara) or ‘integrity’(PoKempner).

In a world which favours immediacy through internet, 24 hour news and a proliferation of images, it’s important that these bodies of work are being made and preserved. Still images and series of images have an important function in that they make us contemplate the realities presented in front of us much more than fleeting news coverage. Let’s hope history can sift through these documents (Frank’s highschool and RIGHT series, Quail’s aftermath in-depth portrayals, Davies’ studies of food sustainability and Vergara’s powerful revisited environmental portraits). Perhaps what unites all of these photographers is that they invest time in these portrayals, they stay with the stories. It pays off.

For more information on the photographers visit:

Louis Quail’s body of work ‘Desk Job’ is being shown at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool as part of ‘Open 1’ until the 23rd August 2015.

Contact Eli Regan

Twitter @ereganreviews

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