BOOK REVIEW: “Image Ethics, The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television”


BOOK REVIEW: Image Ethics, The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television.
Edited by Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, Jay Ruby, New York, Oxford University Press, Communication and Society.
Year: 1988, ISBN 0-19-506780-0. Pages: 382 total. Price: $60.

Image Ethics, The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television.

I would like to begin this book review by talking to you about the cover. I know people say you can’t tell a book by its cover. But you can tell something. The cover of this book is black and white. This leads you to expect certain clear distinctions. Inside, there is no black and white. The book is about how nothing in the media world is black and white. Human life is not black and white. Moral and ethical dilemmas are not black and white.


Present days are characterized by the influence of mass media, especially film and television production, photography, and mass communications. They contribute to the improvement of society by comforting and inspiring people as well as by motivating them into action for their own benefit and the benefit of others. However, they may also become a tool, destructive and invasive to people’s lives. They may, instead of providing us with pedagogical advantages and aesthetic enhancement, infringe into the privacy of individuals and cause ethical dilemmas. The book Image Ethics brings together thirteen essays that deal with the ethical issues that are involved in modern media productions. The pictures that are presented in the media pose many ethical and moral questions. The essays go into exhaustive discussions regarding the ethical problems in photo making, film and television in the context of rights of the individual (photo made by Dorothea Lange, ‘Migrant Mother’) and group privacy (movie: The Case of Titicut Follies, directed by Frederick Wiseman). They raise questions concerning the meaning of images in documentaries (Katz&Katz). They deal also in the commercial uses of photographs in advertising (Viera). The three powerful media like photography, film and television have enormous power and impact to the world. Image Ethics is a ‘symbolical moral pause’ to understand the moral implications of these images in their personal, public and cultural context. One example would be the major role media play in the process of social definition and stereotypes of minorities, such as blacks, Hispanics, Arabs (Shaheen), as well as homosexuals both lesbian woman and gay men (Gross) or ethnic groups as Amish (Hostetler&Kraybill). To me the most provocative issue in book Image Ethics are these:

1. The power of image itself.

In today’s media, the language of words is exchanged for the language of images. In the composition of the mind of the man, word is being replaced with image. When an image is supported by word, the image has a much more power. The image has much more impact on the psyche of man. This power raises questions of responsibility.

The responsibility of the image maker to his or her subject may not always be the same as his or her responsibility to the audience. This raises the problem of the dual contract created by the image maker, one to the subject, the other to the audience. The audience also has a dual response to an image. The first is passiveness in the reception of information which releases the viewer from the personal thinking. The second results in prompt creativity. This begins a discourse about the thin border-line between aesthetics (arts) and moral issues (real life). These questions are raised, for example by pictures made by Lewis Wickes Hine of children working in factories; or movie Nanook of the North, a first travelogue showing a drama situation of Eskimos, offered as an ‘exotic” view of a planet.

2. The question of privacy (individual and group). In fact, are there any such things as privacy any more?

Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz and Jay Ruby (as editors of Image Ethics) refer to the issue of the individual and group privacy as the most discussed ethical problem in the media era. They discuss intrusion (questions about rights of privacy), embarrassment (dilemmas about how much media shows), false light (problem of generalization, rights of property, privacy, and public low or profits) and appropriations (‘stolen identity’). The elements present in media distort ethical norms by pretending to be telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”[1] The question raised is “Are they true?” Confrontation between the public’s ‘right to know’ and the individual’s ‘right to privacy’ also is an active moral question.[2]

I dealt with this problem personally. Two years ago I opened a soccer club in Chicago. Before I started to do anything in this club, I needed to get permission from all the children’s parents in the club that all pictures I made could be used but only with their permission. The question is: who owns an image?

3. The question of the truth of an image – especially an image that is presented as a documentary truth.

When the new media came, the question arose about rules of ethics for documentary films concerning how far the film-maker can go with the subject, how intimate he or she can become, how much protection the subject needs, and the balance between the public’s right to know and the privacy of the individual.”[3] These questions are still alive and more complicated than twenty years ago.

In documentary movies the problem is ‘that people don’t know where documents end and drama begins’[4], when the real life ends and art begins. The moral right of the subjects in the documentary style of production are compromised by the fact that ‘reality’ presented by photography does not always show the real life of real people (Winston). There is a big difference between reality television and reality. Manipulation, propaganda and other forms of presentation (Beauchamp, Klaiman wrote about this in the context of Vietnamese and War) can show a ‘different light’ on reality as result of ignorance, historical context, education, language, geographical location, family and social background, or art education (Henderson).

4. The media play a major role in the process of social definition and stereotypes of minorities.

International discourse and communication about the perception of certain ethnic or national groups and of their cultural, political or religious habits have the potential to influence the success or failure of these groups. These perceptions, transmitted through virtually all means of communication, are called stereotypes. Media have the power to change stereotypes, keep them going in our minds or exchange them for new ones.

Every country has used theirs own stereotypes. When I was a child I watched TV and grew up on Bonanza. For all Polish people at the end of 1970s and beginning of 1980s America was a cowboy country. Which is why, the last President of this country, George W. Bush was seen in Poland as a “cowboy from Texas”. Media have the power to create stereotypes and change them, but they have the power to create new stereotypes too.


As I said at the start, morals in media are not black and white. The book, Image Ethics, tries to introduce and explain and help to understand the rights of media producers and their subjects in the media era. Image Ethics tries to introduce and explain the rights of individuals and how to protect them from the sudden invasion and unwarranted intrusion of an often unscrupulous media. The book is like an ‘open case’. It never gives the answer, but provokes us to find answers. The arguments in Image Ethics are supported by real life examples and descriptive cases which present to the readers moral dilemmas coming from visual image production. The authors address this book to the audience interested in media to provoke debate surrounding the aesthetic, political and moral issues. The power of photography, film and television is protected under American Constitution as an essential freedom in democratic society. This book deals with the moral questions that come with that freedom.

The authors of this book wrote it in 1988 with no experience in new revolutionary media like the Internet that came about in the middle of 1990s. Even then, there was a lot of speculation on the influence of new technology in ethical issues. New questions about ‘anonymous people’ living in ‘virtual life’ raise new questions about free speech. This subject is treated in another book edited by the same authors and published in 2003, called Image Ethics in Digital Age.

I recommend book Image Ethics as a starting place for considering the results of technology on the human question of morality. I like that it uses concrete examples to make its points. I found difficulties because it does not have a single viewpoint, but thirteen. But it does ask a good question: How do we use media to our advancement and not our destruction?


[1] Gross L., Katz J.S., Ruby J. (1988). Introduction: A Moral Pause. In L. Gross, J. Stuart Katz, J. Ruby (Ed.), Image Ethics. The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television. (p. 15). New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Gross L., Katz J.S., Ruby J. (1988). Introduction: A Moral Pause. In L. Gross, J. Stuart Katz, J. Ruby (Ed.), Image Ethics. The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television. (p. 17). New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Katz J.S. & Katz J.M., (1988). Ethics and the Perception of Ethics in Autobiographical Film. In L. Gross, J. Stuart Katz, J. Ruby (Ed.), Image Ethics. The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television. (p. 120). New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Gross L., Katz J.S., Ruby J. (1988). Introduction: A Moral Pause. In L. Gross, J. Stuart Katz, J. Ruby (Ed.), Image Ethics. The Moral Rights of Subject in Photographs, Film, and Television. (p. 25). New York: Oxford University Press.



(fot. Jan Bommes / / CC BY 2.0)

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