Is it ethical to photograph suffering?

Within my essay I will be discussing Donna Ferrato’s Living with the Enemy (1991) and Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Child Labour in the New South (1986). Both books deal with different kinds of suffering, Ferrato’s book mainly focusses on abuse within families whereas Lewis Hine deals with the issue of child labour. Each uses their photography to highlight certain these problems which would otherwise go on unnoticed. I will be asking whether it is ethical for these photographers to photograph and publish the sufferings of the people seen in their images using different ethical theories from David Hume and Immanuel Kant to support it.

I’m going to begin by discussing Donna Ferrato’s book Living with the Enemy (1991) was dedicated to exposing the difficulties and the dangers of domestic abuse at a time when police and judges saw it as a family matter and wouldn’t get involved until someone was dead. However, through the book she also documents the change in how police deal with these cases as they began to get training on how to deal with them and notice signs of abuse. She used her camera to document women suffering abuse from their husbands or boyfriends, some more closely than others. At the beginning of the book Ferrato explained why she began to photograph domestic abuse. As it had never been a part of her childhood it wasn’t until she witnessed a man physically abuse his wife whilst on an assignment that she realised love could turn to violence. Ferrato was so shocked by what she had seen that she became determined to help people affected by it “Driven to try to do something about it, I found that a camera was my best weapon. “ (Ferrato, 1991) the only way Ferrato knew how to try and force people to deal with the issue of domestic abuse was to document what happens.

In the introduction to the book Ann Jones tells the reader how Ferrato captured these images and gives more information on what a woman suffering from domestic abuse goes through. She states that Ferrato’s style is very casual “She’ll hang out for days at a hospital or a shelter or a police department or somebody’s house – she loves talking to people – and once in n a while she’ll squeeze off a picture with her funny-looking camera, like any casual observer snapping a souvenir photo on an Instamatic. “ (Jones, 1991, pg. 12) From what the subject matter of the photographs are of this is a very offhand way of describing her style, it takes away the seriousness of the kind of work Ferrato is doing. Jones also discusses the ethical issues of the kind of images Ferrato takes, especially the photographs she takes whilst in someone’s home “I’ve heard a photo editor complain that some of Ferrato’s photographs depict things too private to be photographed. Some things should not be imaged, the argument goes, and “domestic violence” is one of those things.” (Jones, 1991, pg. 12) she also talks about how closely this argument connects to “…the traditional excuse of the law and the church and the state for doing nothing to stop violence against women and children.” (Jones, 1991, pg. 12) although some of Ferratos images do show extremely private moments between husband and wife if we did not see the proof and the violence through them would we still believe how terrible it can be? Subjects such as this are easy to ignore and turn away from if they do not affect you personally. Ferrato found a way to force her audience to face the reality of what is going on behind closed doors.

Ferrato had found obstacles when it came to finding women to interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine when she and reporter Dick Polman were commissioned to do a story on domestic violence in Philadelphia “We found that getting firsthand stories of battered women presented a number of serious difficulties, as well as some ethical problems.” (Ferrato, 1991, pg. 134) Hospital staff felt it was unprofessional for them to ask battered women if a photographer could come talk to them. Ferrato herself felt the same way “That was the hardest part–asking permission to invade the privacy of a patient at what might be one of the worst moments of her life. “ (Ferrato, 1991, pg. 134) it takes a lot for a person to let someone photograph them at their weakest moment, this is not how most people want to be seen by others or to be remembered.

Image A (Ferrato, D. (1991) Living with the Enemy)

One of the stories included in Living with the Enemy wasn’t meant to be about domestic abuse but as Ferrato had dealt with it for so long she began to see the signs. The assignment was for the Japanese Playboy. The assignment was to photograph couples who represented the glamorous life-style of the era (1981). The couple she photographed were Lisa and Garth, during the assignment Ferrato lived with the couple so that she could photograph their everyday lives.  One night Ferrato heard them arguing so took her camera to go and find out what was happening, she took photographs whilst they were arguing and even captured an image of Garth hitting Lisa (sequence show in image A) “When I first saw Garth hit Lisa, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Instinctively, I took a picture. But when he went to hit her again, I grabbed his arm and pleaded with him to stop. “ (Ferrato, 1991, pg. 144) because they were arguing in the bathroom and the walls are mainly mirrors you can see Ferrato in the images. It is this section of the book which raises the most ethical questions, this is one of the situations where she could help first hand rather than just taking pictures of the aftermath. To raise awareness of domestic abuse she stood by and let it happen, only intervening after it became physical.

Although in the images Ferrato appears distant and emotionally detached from the situation, it had a big impact on her. When she got home afterwards she put the roll of film in a draw and didn’t look at it until months after because she wanted to convince herself it never happened “I know now that my denial of the seriousness of what I had witnessed and my effort to overlook it are typical responses to domestic violence.” (Ferrato, 1991, pg. 144) the images which she desperately tried to forget about are in a book for all who buy it or look at in a library to see. Without seeing these images in the context of the book, and not knowing how Ferrato felt about them they would appear very disturbing as you see a woman crouching in the corner, being a voyeur of such a private and morally wrong event. Perhaps viewers of the images who did not know the context would try and convince themselves it wasn’t real, that they are stills from a movie to put a distance between them and the intimacy of photographs, just as Ferrato did after taking them.

The sequence shown in image A shows the lack of intervention Ferrato had during the event of Garth attacking Lisa, but this could be blamed on the medium itself rather than the person behind it “Photography is essentially an act of non-intervention.” (Sontag, 1979, pg. 11) In this situation, for Ferrato or any photographer no matter what situation, one must make the choice of whether they are going to intervene or photograph. It is not possible to do both “The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.” (Sontag, 1979, pg. 12) I find it fascinating that in image A you can see Ferrato in the act of not taking physical action against the suffering happening in front of her camera. Her duty was aimed more at documenting the situation than helping the woman, however using Kantian theory on ethics she still was doing the right thing. Her intention was to use the photographs of the abuse to raise awareness in order to get people the help they needed. She was not taking them for her own gain, but to help Garth realise what he had done was wrong. However, she did not do this straight away, and did not shown them the images at all as she didn’t feel it was her place, the outcome of Lisa finally getting away and starting again was her own doing, and not because of Ferrato’s images. Using a consequentialist doctrine this would mean the action of taking the images shown in image A was not ethically correct as it did not provide a positive outcome for Lisa or Garth.

The second book I am going to look at is Lewis Hine’s, Lewis Hine: Photographs of Child Labor in the New South (1986) this shows a selected number of photographs from Hines work photographing child labour. These images were used in campaigns for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), they were used to illustrate their books, articles, and pamphlets. In contrast to Ferrato’s images, Hine’s were used to aid a political charity who were actively trying to stop child labor. His images are an example of how photography can be politically effective. His photographs were used as evidence to expose child labor “Their realism provided powerful, irrefutable evidence of the horrors of child labor in all its forms-horrors that the mill owners, the New South boosters, and even the desperately poor parents of the child workers tried to deny. “ (Kemp and Hine, 1986, pg. 7) by looking at the photographs Hine hoped that it would make them realise what they were doing was morally wrong, and by showing the public these images too that they would join the NCLC’s cause to put an end to it. This is very similar to what Ferrato wanted her images to do. However, the main difference between Hine and Ferrato’s photographs is that, Ferrato’s subjects were aware that she was taking pictures and gave their permission, whereas, Hine had to sneak around to the sites to take pictures of the children working. As the subject of his photographs were children, his images can seem predatory and exploitive as the children weren’t necessarily aware that they were being treated cruelly.

Image B (Hine, L. (1911) Dunbar, Louisiana)

Image C (Hine, L. (1908) Newberry, South Carolina)

In images B and C, you can see the kind of photographs Hine took of the children working and C is a group photograph of all the child workers. In image B Hine uses the child’s name, and tells a little bit about that one individual in the crowd and what will become of the baby sitting amongst it all. The ethical question to ask here is that, were the children or anyone in the photographs aware of why they were having their picture taken? Or were they just the subject of NCLC’s claim without even knowing it.

Hine was very emotionally involved in the work he did on child labor “He was genuinely concerned about the children he photographed. He met them as individuals; he spoke with them and listened to their stories. “ (Kemp and Hine, 1986, pg. 10) he wasn’t just there to take the pictures and move on and forget, he re-visited areas again to see if there was any improvement of their treatment towards the children as the NCLC made progress in helping change the laws on child labor in different states. In Judith Butlers discussion on Susan Sontag regarding the subject Torture and the Ethics of Photography she spoke of how Sontag argued that “If a photograph becomes effective in informing or moving us politically, it is, in her view, only because the image is received within the context of a relevant political consciousness. “ (Butler, 2010, pg. 67) a photograph does not give the viewer any context on its own, it may arouse sympathetic emotion when first viewed but they may not know in what context they’re looking at it in. Especially when thinking of Lewis Hines images, with some of the photographs of the children you would not know that they were being subdued to child labor, in a lot of them the children are smiling and look happy. Butler also states how Sontag thinks we view images of a horrific nature “Photographs cannot produce ethical pathos in us, she remarks; or if they do, it is only momentarily- we see something atrocious and move on at a moments notice.” (Butler, 2010, pg. 69) Are there images that stick in our mind and forever make an impact on us? After finishing Donna Ferrato’s book of Living with the Enemy I felt a very powerful disgust against how the women in the book were treated, but after I am finished I will perhaps forget all about it and move onto the next traumatic subject matter. If this statement is true that we move on quickly, we need to be reminded often of the horrific events which go on around the world more often than ever. The photograph is needed as evidence, if photographers did not capture suffering then people would be oblivious to what is happening. In this sense, it would be ethical to photograph suffering as it would make the world aware, whether they choose to take action or not.

Hine himself believed that “Whether it be a painting or a photograph, the picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality. . . . In fact, it is often more effective than the reality would have been, because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated. “ (Kemp and Hine, 1986, pg. 7) the only voice the photographs Hine took are the viewers, they make you ask yourself if what you are seeing is right or wrong, should these children be working from the age of eight or younger? Some at three years old are already ‘learning the trade’. When Hine spoke to the mill owners and the parents they say that it builds character but most of the children and even their parents can’t read or write their own names. In the photographs, you don’t hear the thoughts of the people who are trying to justify it, or the voice of the NCLC, unless they are being viewed in one of their articles or seen in one of their exhibitions. By showing the reality in his images Hine’s allows the viewer to make their own moral decision, however “The images of working children were meant to shock and anger their viewers, to rouse the public against a system Hine abhorred. “ (Kemp and Hine, 1986, pg. 12) the images did have a purpose and were meant to arouse a certain emotion in the viewers. Both photographers were acting on a strong sense of duty to help their fellow human beings, but were also very passionate about the causes they were trying to help.

Firstly, I would argue that both photographers wanted their work to help those who they photographed, their intentions were in the correct place, but does this mean that it is ethical? Immanuel Kant’s thesis on ethics is that the motive of an action was far more important than the action itself and its consequences. He thought that in order to know whether or not someone was acting morally you had to know what their intention was. “ (Warburton, 2012, pg. 42) With Kant’s theory on ethics it wouldn’t be enough to just look at Ferrato’s and Hine’s photographs in their books to know whether what we are seeing is ethical or not, but we would need to know why they took them. Kant also thought that “it was clear that a moral action was one performed out of a sense of duty, rather than simply out of inclination or feeling or the possibility of some kind of gain for the person performing it. “ (Warburton, 2012, pg. 42) this is where the ethicalness on Ferrato and Hine’s books could be questioned, as both would have gained from publishing their work and selling the books. Through wanting to show an audience the sufferings of the people they photographed they have gained money as they would have to sell them to get anything out of it themselves.

In contrast to Kant’s views on ethics, David Hume argues that rather than reason being the main role when we make ethical decisions, it is feelings “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Hume, 1994, pg. 119) For Hume, reason only plays a small role in how we make an ethical decision, it is only through emotion that we can tell the difference between right and wrong. When thinking of both Hine and Ferrato’s work with this ethical thesis in mind, it appears that the subject of the images is morally wrong. But by the act of having the emotional capacity to photograph them and show others to raise awareness could be argued to mean that the books are ethically correct.

In a consequentialist point of view the outcome of the work Hine’s did was morally correct, as it helped to bring change to the social issue of child labor in many states. His action of taking photographs of the children who were suffering and being exploited, whether taken with permission or not, it helped the people and it brought awareness to what was happening. With Ferrato’s work the outcome of her book had less of an impact on raising awareness of domestic abuse, which is still a problem today. She may have made a difference in the lives she photographed, but she was mainly just recording the change. Her book wasn’t largely seen, as Hine’s images were, and as a photographer she isn’t widely known. Unlike Hine, her photographs of domestic abuse did not make her name immortal. I think that the issue is that people see domestic abuse as a private matter, and something that shouldn’t be photographed is still seen as controversial today. In fact, both social issues which I have discussed in the work are both probably still happening.

In conclusion, ethically, using Kantian and Hume’s theory the act of photographing suffering is morally correct when it is being done to support such courses as Hine’s and Ferrato’s, even if, especially with Ferrato’s work, the effectiveness of the outcome was seemingly short lived and made a difference on a smaller scale. They were acting on both duty and their passion to help the people in their photographs and spoke to them as individuals rather than being an outsider, taking what they need with no thought of giving anything in return. They were emotionally involved and willing to help put an end to their suffering in the best way they saw fit, to photograph it.


Butler, J. (2010) Frames of war: When is life grievable? New York: Verso Books.

Ferrato , D. (1991) Living with the enemy. New York: Aperture .

Kemp, J.R. and Hine, L.W. (1986) Lewis Hine: Photographs of child labor in the new south. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Singer, P. (ed.) (1994) Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].

Warburton, N. (2012) Philosophy: The basics. 5th edn. London: Taylor & Francis.



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