Just because you can, should you? The ethics of images sales.

Just because you can, should you? The ethics of images sales.
A Taoist man lights a candle at the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Does he care what I do with his image?

A Taoist man lights a candle at the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Does he care what I do with his image?

I’ve been ruminating over some ethical issues.

Recently, I had a business ask to use several of my images, and they were willing to pay a decent amount of money. It’s not like I’m rolling in the dough (who is?) and I can afford to turn business away. But in this case, that’s exactly what I did. I turned them away for one simple reason: I did not have a model release, and there was no way I could obtain a release on those images; therefore I felt I could not in good conscience deliver the images for this business to use to generate revenue.

The loss of revenue alone is not that big of a deal, but it prompted me to start mulling over some ethical scenarios in my head.

Would I ever consider giving away a photograph of a Muslim man or woman to say, a brewery for an advertisement or promotion? (I can’t imagine what the ad might look like, but that’s not the point.) Why not?  After all, the subject I have photographed would probably never know, right? There might be good promotional value in it for me. What if I have a release on this image and they want to buy the image? Oooh, now things are really getting interesting. Frankly, legally it is a moot point because I have a release, and now it’s mine to do with it as I want. The problem is–I don’t feel that way.

Why? Because I feel I have obtained what I call an implied trust from the people I photograph. Granted, I am probably thinking naive here and I am sure there are other photographers out there that will read this and think it laughable, but that’s the way I see it. I have written about this in the past and have spoken with others like Esther Havens about this sort of thing on my podcast, Depth of Field.

When I photograph someone I try to connect with them. This trust comes out of a term I coined: the micro-relationship. I don’t fool myself in thinking that I have a real relationship with everybody I photograph. Especially since sometimes I’m only with them for a second or two. But even in a few seconds I feel like I connect with the people I photograph. I feel if they are camera aware, and see that I’m taking their photograph, and don’t object, then there is a sense of implied trust with what I’ll do with that photograph. Now, admittedly, I don’t know their beliefs, I don’t know their morals, I don’t know their life experience so I cannot completely understand what they would allow or not allow in the way of use of their image. But, I do know oftentimes broad generalizations about their culture. For instance, I know that Muslims are opposed to eating pork and drinking alcohol. So, if I know something about their culture or beliefs am I responsible with respect to this knowledge?

I work with a number of  different types of nonprofit organizations. Often times (maybe because of my own beliefs) they are faith-based organizations. By faith-based, I mean these organizations are motivated by principles based in their religious beliefs: i.e. Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. These non-profit’s are motivated by their values of  compassion and humanitarianism derived from their faith. With that said, all four of the faiths listed above have different core values and may not agree with each other. Is it my responsibility to make sure that the Christian or Muslim organization uses my images in line with the known values of the subject in the photograph? Honestly? I’m not sure–but I think so, at least to the best of my ability and my understanding of  the general beliefs that person might hold to. This leads to why I don’t give up my copyright.

This gets very complicated and at some point you have to just throw up your hands and say, “here is the line and I can’t cross it.”  It really comes down to the fact that every individual photographer needs to set ethical limits and boundaries that they can live with. We won’t agree with each other, who agrees with anything 100%? I don’t think I can impose my ethical limits on you –as much as I might want to. But I can use my boundaries as a model for others, because if I didn’t feel that instant, fleeting, momentary connection that I do with my subjects, I wouldn’t love photography as much as I do, it wouldn’t be my passion,  and to at least consider these questions is the job for every artist in every field, maybe even, for all of us.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


    • Matt

      Piet, Good point. But let me through this out. The next question is: are we motivated by getting caught or by doing what’s right?

  1. Jack Kurtz

    I agree with you Matt and I think this is also something photojournalists consider on almost every assignment.

    I’ve turned down a few sales because I didn’t agree with how the photos would be used.

    In one instance, I turned a potentially large sale to a news magazine in the US that was doing a story critical of a religious minority in the southwestern US. I spent a summer photographing life in the community through the experiences of one family. The magazine was a doing a story that was critical of the group as a whole and they wanted to use my photos, which are sort of exclusive since this is a notoriously difficult community to photograph in. It was editorial use, so there was no need for model releases, but I decided not to allow use of the photos because the story the magazine was writing didn’t match up with my experiences with this specific family. It was a tough call for me because I happened to agree with most of the story and with their conclusion, but I didn’t think it was fair to the family I photographed to use their images with this story unless someone in the family, the patriarch or one of his wives, was quoted to give the photos context. That wasn’t going to happen so I turned the magazine down.

    On another occasion though I made a nice sale from a photo I made in Switzerland. I went to a Swiss wrestling tournament for a travel story and photographed a wrestler with his head in sawdust. A Swiss hearing aid company saw the photo in my Photoshelter archive and contacted me about using it in an ad. I turned them down because I didn’t have a model release. The hearing aid company tracked the wrestler down and got the release. They contacted me again, sent me a pdf of the release and said the wrestler was thrilled to be in the ad. That was the most complicated easy sale in my life.


    • Matt

      Jack, what great stories to illustrate this point. So the PJ has to deal with as well. I wouldn’t have thought it was as big a deal with them. Just goes to show.

  2. Joe Murray

    Matt, I like these thoughts as I too have wrestled with these issues. I know for me I often get checked when I realize I thinking more about making money or advancing my work instead of placing a higher value on the people I photographed and doing the right thing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Matt

      Thanks Joe.

  3. Anietra Hamper

    As a former tv journalist, my concern for “context” of a subject now translates into my writing and photography for my own company. Kudos to you for putting thought into the subject as it does bring up a good discussion. I, too, have turned down business out of principal because it is the right thing to do. Furthermore, beyond the photo your reputation will be built on your actions. How could a future potential client trust that you won’t do something unethical with their photos just to make a buck?
    I guarantee you stand to gain business by your actions. Thanks for reinforcing this lesson to those of us who would do the same thing as those are tricky decisions.

    • Matt

      As much as I hope you’re right about gaining business by a having a good reputation, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. I think reputation (and frankly even ability ) is less important these days than good marketing.

  4. Robert van Sluis

    Hi Matt, excellent points made. Sometimes it feels that the business of taking photos abroad, and selling them in your own country for whatever commercial use, even with a model release, is a new kind of colonialism. I agree with you, the trust between photographer and subject is very important, both when taking the and afterwards and that will always win in the long run. It would be interesting to set up a worldwide fund in which photographers would donate part of their proceeds to the people on which their photographs were based. The Dutch press agency ANP tried something like this a few years ago. Of course, payment to individuals would be complicated, but donations to local NGOs from such a fund could ensure money flows back to the community from which the images were ‘sourced’… With best wishes, Robert

    • Matt

      Robert, “a new kind of colonialism” OUCH! That stings. As much as I don’t want to, I think I might have to agree with you. I wouldn’t have used that term but I think you might be right. As for the NGO you describe, count me in. I would be on the board or help wherever I could. I think that sounds like a great idea.

  5. Kathy Meidell

    Thanks for this blog post. I think about these things all the time.

    I recently attended a huge Native American event where photography is allowed. I’ll never try to make money off these images. Just doesn’t feel right. The only thing I do with them, other than enjoying them, is donate certain images to a Native group for use on their organization’s website.

    I have daydreamed about the hypothetical instance where I one day got an image at that event that “THE WORLD JUST NEEDED TO SEE”. And in my mind, in that case, I imagined I would find folks to talk to and find a way to benefit the Native community with it.

    I never knew when I started photography there would be so many ethical concerns related to having a camera in my hands. So many personal issues come up, from personal vision to ethics. It is probably the reason I fell in love with photography more than I ever thought I would. Photography is a fantastic life mirror in so many ways.

    Thanks again for the post. Nice to hear others discuss this.



  1. On the ethics of image sales | Robert van Sluis - photo | graphic - [...] Over on the blog of the  Digital Trekker, Matt Brandon, this week is a post on the ethics of…

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