The Ethics of Documentary Photography: Balancing Artistic Expression with Responsibility


In this latest article, we discuss the ethics of documentary photography and why ethical considerations should be close to the top of your priority list when you are planning a documentary project.

As photographers, we have the right to express ourselves creatively, but in documentary photography projects it’s also important to ensure that we do not invoke that right in a way that is detrimental to those we photograph.  After all, as documentary photographers, we are dealing with real people, events, and situations and those events may have been extremely traumatic.

With its ability to shed light on important social and cultural issues, documentary photography has the potential to educate, inspire, and bring about change.  However, it also has the ability to mislead and misrepresent.  Therefore, we must always ensure that we apply the highest ethical standards to our work.  

This discussion of the ethics of documentary photography will help you to ensure that you maintain a good balance between your artistic expression and your responsibility towards those who engage with our work as participants or viewers.

The principles are not difficult to understand, but there are sure to be some things that you have not considered when planning your project or generating documentary photography topic ideas.  

the ethics of documentary photography street photography and photojournalism

In this blog post, we will explore some key subtopics on the ethics of documentary photography and discuss how photographers can navigate the complex ethical landscape that is part and parcel of this genre.

The ethical considerations that are discussed here are equally important for other photographic genres, especially for street photography and photojournalism.

The Role of Informed Consent in Documentary Photography

Informed consent is a critical component when considering the ethics of documentary photography. This means that photographers should make a good-faith effort to inform their subjects of the purpose and potential impact of their images and obtain their consent to use the images in a particular way. 

In some cases, this may mean that photographers need to have difficult conversations with their subjects in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page.  When I begin a project I prepare a form which explains the project in detail.  It explains exactly how the images will be used, typically this will include website, social media, print media, exhibition, competition, or even a book.

I also explain that the participant can withdraw from the project at any stage.  I will send copies of the images I have captured and ask the participants to confirm that they are happy for me to use them in any of the ways outlined in the informed consent document.

If the subject hates the photos, or if they have simply changed their mind, it is much better to know before an article, or in a worst case scenario, a book goes to print.  

The Impact of Technology on the Ethics of Documentary Photography

I think it would be fair to say that the rapid advancement of technology has had a profound impact on the world of documentary photography.  We now have cameras that can embed location and GPS data into the Exif files of our photographs.  

This technology is useful in helping photographers to catalog their image libraries, but if we are careless it can identify a vulnerable person’s home address to unscrupulous people who have no right to that sort of data.

Likewise, programs like Adobe Lightroom offer us the opportunity to use facial recognition to identify individuals in our image collections.  While this technology is useful to us as photographers as it can be used to identify subjects and improve the accuracy of images, it also raises serious privacy and ethical concerns. 

We can never be certain how much data is scraped by technology companies when we use their software.  Therefore, photographers must carefully consider the potential impact of this technology on their subjects and make informed decisions about whether and how to use it. 

Photographic Manipulation's Impact on the Ethics of Documentary Photography

Photographic Manipulation and its Impact on Documentary Photography
Impact of photo manipulation on the ethics of documentary photography

We have all heard the expression that “the camera never lies.”  Unfortunately, in the modern world, this simply isn’t the case.  Technology has made the manipulation of images easier than ever.  The rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence based software means that even those with limited technical skills can now manipulate images with the click of a button, or in many cases, with the swipe of a finger on a screen.

While some argue that the use of digital tools and techniques is necessary to create a compelling visual story, others argue that manipulation undermines the credibility of the images and the photographer’s role as a witness to events.

Just last month a scandal erupted when British Government minister Grant Shapps shared an image on Twitter.  Unfortunately for Shapps eagle eyed viewers spotted that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been removed from the image.  Shapps claimed that he had failed to notice that Johnson was missing from the image he tweeted. This might seem a minor matter but it damages the integrity of photography, and in this case photojournalism.

If the ethics of documentary photography are to be maintained, it is essential that photographers are transparent about their methods and clearly communicate any manipulation that has taken place.

Privacy Concerns in Documentary Photography

It can be difficult to balance the ethics of documentary photography with the need to tell a story in an impactful and engaging way.  In order to tell a compelling story it is often essential to capture sensitive or intimate moments.   This often means being invited into a subject’s personal space and we may be exposed to aspects of a subject’s life story that they would prefer to keep private.

In these situations, it is essential that photographers carefully consider the potential impact of their images on the subjects and make an informed decision about whether to proceed.  We must ensure that the images we make do not encroach into areas that have not been agreed upon in advance.

It may sound obvious, but if you have any doubts ask the subject if it is OK to proceed and ask if it is OK to use the image.

Some of the images used in this article are from a project I undertook in Thailand a couple of years ago.  The project was a sort of hybrid between street and documentary photography and focused on refugees who had fled to Thailand from the conflict in Myanmar.  Some of the refugees had entered Thailand illegally.  Others had been brought in by people traffickers and were forced to work in Thailand’s fishing industry.

For obvious reasons some people really did not want to be photographed.  When this was made clear I simply deleted the images and allowed those people to see that I had done so.

The Ethics of Photographing Vulnerable Communities and Individuals

The Ethics of documentary photography vulnerable people

Continuing on from the section above, we can see that documentary photographers often find themselves in situations where they are documenting communities or individuals who are vulnerable, such as refugees, people experiencing homelessness, or those living in poverty. 

These situations require a high level of sensitivity and ethical consideration, as the images can have a significant impact on the lives of the subjects. 

With a little thought, it is a simple matter to photograph vulnerable people in a sensitive way, preserving their dignity, and if necessary, without identifying them.  

Ethical documentary photographers must be mindful of their own biases and perspectives, and they must make a conscious effort to accurately represent the experiences of their subjects without exploiting them.

The ethics of documentary photography demand that photographers accurately represent their subjects. 

This means that photographers must make a conscious effort to avoid stereotypes and to accurately depict the experiences and perspectives of their subjects. 

Photographers must also be mindful of the power dynamics that might exist between themselves and their subjects, and they must make an effort to create a level playing field in which their subjects are given an equal voice in the storytelling process.

Representing diverse perspectives is a critical component of ethical documentary photography. Photographers must make a conscious effort to capture a range of perspectives, including those of marginalised communities, and to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or misrepresenting their subjects. 

If we accept that documentary photography has the power to produce the sort of images that don’t just capture and preserve the world around us, but can help to shape it, then photographers need to go beyond their comfort zones.  There is a wealth of material to be found if we actively seek out underrepresented communities and perspectives.  

By creating a more diverse and nuanced visual representation of the world documentary photography can highlight injustice, encourage acceptance, and contribute to making the world a better place for marginalised communities.

When the ethical lines are blurred

Throughout this article, we have suggested that the ethics of documentary photography dictate that the photographer’s role is to record people and events in an honest, genuine, and authentic way.  Images should be a factual representation of what the photographer, and hence the camera sees at a given time.

But, what if the photographer sees something important happen if front of them but the moment is gone before it is photographed?  Would a photographer who recreates that scene be adhering to the ethics of documentary photography?  This is exactly the accusation levelled at Robert Capa, one of the most important documentary photographers of all time.


Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death Robert Capa ethics of documentary photography
Image by Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

Capa’s image “Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death” was captured in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

The photograph purports to have captured the moment when a young militiaman was shot in the head and killed.  It was hailed as one of the greatest documentary photographs even captured and it was certainly the image that established the importance of Capa’s work and launched his stellar career.


The image was accepted as totally authentic until the 1970s.  Since then there have been significant doubts about its authenticity due to its location, the identity of its subject, and the discovery of staged photographs taken at the same time and place.  It is suggested that Capa was 30 miles away from where the battle the image claims to represent occurred.

Capa’s supporters still claim that the image is authentic.  Others argue that an artist is entitled to a degree of artistic licence when depicting a scene.  Is it acceptable to recreate a scene a moment or two after it happened?  How about an hour later, or the next day?   Where does one draw the line when trying to adhere to the ethics of documentary photography?

I would suggest that there is a degree of flexibility in how we present our storytelling images provided that we are open and honest about how the work was made.  We stray into unethical practice if we present our work in a way that is intended to deceive, misrepresent, or exaggerate.

What do you think?  

Watch out for the next article in this documentary photography series where I will introduce you to some contemporary documentary photographers and the work that they are producing.