Case Study [ethics in photography]

The goal of the following narrative is to provide all participants with a come “think piece” from which we can play off during the morning panel discussions and in the afternoon break groups. We have adjusted both Duke’s calendar and that of the world’s to accommodate this story.

Amy Tyson is a rising senior at Duke University with a deeply held commitment to social change and a passion for photography. She has taken many Duke photography courses and even summer courses at the International Center for Photography in New York. Last fall, she proposed a service/learning/research project to work with a local preservation society in Concepción, a connection made through her father, the managing editor of a west coast newspaper and an old Chilean friend from their days at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Tyson was in bed when the earthquake on Sunday. She’d spent a particularly grueling day rushing around the city as she moved into the last week of his project. Her lodgings, a single story building, suffered minimal damage but like the rest of those who could, she was out on the street helping to clear out any rubble by hand, looking for people who might be buried beneath. When she wasn’t dragging stones away and helping the injured to safety, she was shooting images of the scenes with her Nikon D90 dSLR and an 18-55mm wide-angle Nikkor. She was overwhelmed by these emotions of determination and pain she found etched in the faces of those around her.

The next day, after being up all night digging and shooting, she got word that Duke would evacuate her on Tuesday. She spent the rest of Monday moving around, as much as was possible, the city and photographing a very human story. One scene, in particular, held her attention. Against the grey and brown stone of a nearby collapsed building, three workers brought out—alive—a young women in a brilliant red dress. She moved quickly to get her 70-300 VR zoom on the Nikon, so she could photograph the young women before she was removed to a waiting ambulance. With that, she was able to photograph the women’s upper body and part of the body of one of the rescue-workers as he leaned over to comfort her. Amy went on to photograph the city where she had just spent eight weeks cataloging its historical buildings, now most of them little more than ruined memories.

Tyson left Concepción with other evacuees the following morning on a chartered flight that took them to Dallas-Ft. Worth, from where each might take flights home. It was only hours after arriving home that Amy made the time to post the images to her Flickr account. She took a stab at some narrative but her focus was on the images. It was then that she noticed that the woman-in-red’s bodice was torn, partially exposing her right breast. This was her best image, one that she felt captured what had happen to the city and its citizens, so she placed the image up front in his image set. Her parents were excited about Amy’s photographs. Her father felt a surge of pride in his daughter’s photojournalism but had unspoken reservations about the image of the woman in the red. He was proud enough to mention his daughter’s photographs to colleagues at other papers. Several used a cropped version of the picture of the woman-in-red as did a number of online news services. Then, someone posted a link to the original photo on Amy’s Flickr account in a post on and the photograph went viral—and quickly made it to Duke University and to Concepción.

The narrative is open-ended enough to allow various lines of discussion. But you might wish to consider:

  • Where are the points in the narrative where one might talk about Amy’s responsibilities and, very importantly, responsibilities to whom?
  • Does she have any responsibility for second party use?
  • Do those users have any obligations to Amy or the photograph’s subject?
  • Are there questions of breach of agreement (Duke’s Institutional Review Board/Human Subject approval that she needed to submit for her program in Chile) and breaches of conscience/implied good faith?

Participants might want to hunt around in The Boston Globe‘s ‘Big Picture’ photo blog.