On the ethics of image sales

Over on the blog of the  Digital Trekker, Matt Brandon, this week is a post on the ethics of image sales.

Matt raises the point that as photographers, we shoot our portraits in an atmosphere of trust and that this trust could be broken when subsequently, whether you have a model release or not, the image is sold to a client who can then use it for whatever purpose. As an example, he mentions an image of a muslim that would be used in an ad for pork or alcohol (without describing what the ad might look like, but we get the point).

I agree with him and with quite a few of the comments that it is a good idea to stay on the safe side and try and have some control over where and how your images will be used, if possible. By selling your images through stock sites other than your own, this gets a little complicated, although I have seen it mentioned on some stock sites that for instance images of muslims may not be used in a negative (editorial) context.

In a comment on the blog, I mentioned that sometimes travel photography can feel a bit like a new form of colonialism: we come in with our cameras and our lenses, we take our images and we hardly ever give back. And it is not only Westerners who do this. Last year, I had the pleasure of observing something similar when a group of Chinese tourists descended upon an Uyghur man in Xinjiang. Maybe it is a group thing?


Hopefully, those with a little compassion will already give back at the time they shoot their images: through smiles, exchanges of compliments, ideas, life experiences, maybe a drink, sometimes a copy of the image, sometimes money.

Ah, there is the question of money again… This week, in a travel photography course that I teach, we discussed the issue of paying money directly to the person you are photographing. Most students felt uncomfortable paying a person to pose for the image, as they felt it would taint their view of the image. Many had encountered people on their travels who had become so familiar to posing for ‘travel images’ that they immediately started asking for money the moment the cameras arrived. This seems to be leading to a new kind of begging: in much the same way that travel photographers might be begging for images, locals start begging to be photographed in exchange for money.

So, direct payment seems to be difficult, and paying out individuals after the sale of the image could be difficult, as sometimes it is quite hard to trace a person in some of the countries we visit. But maybe we could set up something else altogether.

For a while I have been thinking about some fund to which travel photographers could donate part of the sales of the travel images. The fund could then be used to pay money to NGOs operating locally, so that part of the proceeds of the images taken can flow back into the community from which they were ‘sourced’.

I mentioned that in my comment on the original post, and The Digital Trekker is up for the idea. If you are too, let’s get in touch so we can get something started ;-)


2 thoughts on “On the ethics of image sales

  1. Maybe this can help the discussion:
    As a musicologist, concert promotor and producer of non Western traditional musics, I travel and make field sound recordings.
    The difference between an audio recording and a photographic image is time. I just can’t make a recording in a ‘click’. Technically, this is possible for a picture. So, I always have to discuss with the musician(s) the why of the recording, how it is archived, what my intensions are and….what is in it for them.
    Is this different for photographers?

  2. Hi Wieland,

    thank you for your reply. Another difference could be that you are recording something which is the musician’s product: the music, and therefore, you get some extra questions ;-) If I were to photograph someone making a painting, or another visual art product, I get those questions too, because I am making a reproduction of their original artwork… However, in a way, photographers are also ‘reproducing life’ and in general, already, it may seem strange to be earning money from this. The added value is in the quality of the ‘reproduction’. Similarly, a sound recording in itself could just be a pure registration, however, when you are making a CD out of it, with some major quality improvements in the mastering and artwork of the CD, you are adding value…

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