HomeIntroducing CybercultureBook ReviewsCourses in CybercultureEvents and ConferencesFeatured LinksAbout RCCS

View All Books

Image Ethics in the Digital Age

Editor: Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, Jay Ruby
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review Published: June 2006

 REVIEW 1: Lane DeNicola

Image Ethics in the Digital Age -- an anthology published in 2003 by University of Minnesota Press -- came at a propitious moment. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq, and every televisual instant the administration and the military/media complex would allow was being beamed around the globe for frenetic consumption. The American public's engagement with the actions of their government on distant foreign lands -- as well as their understanding of a radically different culture -- was (and is) being mediated in large part through a montage of Al-Jazeera video broadcasts, evidentiary photos from Abu Ghraib, night-vision rifle scopes, and satellite image overlays. The product of a conference convened eighteen months prior to 9/11, contributions to Image Ethics just preceded the vast flood of new developments in visual media triggered by the attack. Nevertheless, the continued relevance of the topics discussed could not be greater. In the volume's first essay, David Perlmutter recalls the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong suspect at close range, which (according to conventional wisdom) was "the photo that lost the war," ostensibly through its evisceration of the American public's support. Citing counter-evidence, Perlmutter suggests that in fact this is just another example of the hyperbolic judgment of visual media by "discourse elites," too often folded into torpid and historicist narrations of public reaction. His imperative for visual media scholars and practitioners to "attract an audience aside from students of visual culture and affect general beliefs and policies" (2) resounds at the moment of this review, following as it does the third anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq, a conflict (and image stream) that continues unabated.

While diverse in topic and approach, Image Ethics is culturally and geographically Western-centric. It is comprised of fifteen essays circulated prior to an invitational March 2000 conference of the same name, convened by the Information and Society Program of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The conference was a follow-on to an earlier (1984) Annenberg Center conference which yielded its own anthology, edited by the same trio (Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television, Oxford University Press, 1988). While that earlier work congealed around well-established visual media, the fifteen years since it was produced has yielded explosive growth in digital imaging technologies and the Internet, and the effects of this growth are a unifying theme of the present volume. The work is strongly American in representation; only three of the eighteen contributors are based outside the U.S. (Cyprus, Australia, and Israel), and with the exception of the two chapters on indigenous media, the events and image-producing institutions discussed were or are either globally disparate or located in the U.S. Nearly all of the contributors are academics, primarily in the fields of communications, journalism, or media studies; anthropologists, sociologists, law scholars, photojournalists and filmmakers account for the remaining contributions. Two of the contributions (those on copyright law and fair use) were previously published in law journals, while three of the others had been published (either in part or as earlier versions) in book form. A minority of the contributions incorporate (black-and-white) images, in particular the two dealing with news coverage of the Columbine High School shooting and a third discussing the advertising photography of Richard Avedon and Sebastião Salgado.

Image Ethics leans toward a focus on the producer end of the image producer/consumer dichotomy (though it ventures here and there into an interrogation of that very binarism). The editors introduce the volume by outlining its central themes: recent innovations in visual media technologies, the effects of those innovations on media production (and consumption), and the ethical challenges introduced by those effects. Three broad technological innovations are considered: 1) the expansion of digital image manipulation capabilities; 2) the proliferation of image-making devices; and 3) increases in the ease and rapidity of image circulation facilitated by Internet growth. The volume surveys technology-induced changes in:
  • the nature and use of visual "news icons";
  • the discourse on professional oversight of photojournalistic practice;
  • the routine operations of the (largely invisible) stock photography industry;
  • copyright and fair use of visual media;
  • online racism and pornography;
  • indigenous media movements and the rights of visual subjects; and
  • the production of daytime talk shows, wildlife and natural history documentaries, and "family films."
Most of the essays are built around empirical work, but especially developed theoretical issues include: the benefits (to advertisers and the media industries) of privacy erosion, celebrity, and spectacle; the various levels at which copyright and fair use operate (legal precept versus behavior, verbal versus visual works, "moral copyright"); and transformations in meaning that occur with the movement of images between contexts (e.g. from galleries, museums, or books to advertisements). Despite their mention in the introduction (and obvious relevance), there is at most only cursory discussion of "reality" programming, video surveillance, biometrics, and "Internet architecture" per se. Also absent is any discussion of computer gaming, scientific visualization, or the digital archiving of artwork in traditional media.

Image Ethics is of necessity less a comprehensive survey than a dendritic probe into a vast array of phenomena, and so it does have limitations, as well as broad possibilities for topical, theoretical, and geographic extension or supplementation. From a cyberstudies perspective, the level of connection with the aforementioned growth in digital technologies varies widely from one chapter to the next (though all are at least focused on phenomena enabled or catalyzed by the growth of the Web). Howard S. Becker and Dianne Hagaman state in their Afterword: "We should not be looking for the impact of digital image making ... on innocent consumers of the product. Instead, what many of the chapters in this volume tell us is that we should be looking for that impact on the social relations that make up the world of image making and distribution" (347). This focus on the "production side" of visual media yields an important contribution in terms of the empirical detail provided, but it also points to tensions that are only sporadically addressed. To what degree must those engaged with visual media be polarized into producers and consumers? What are the implications for the espousal of a broad "visual literacy" if consumers are "innocent"? What is the appropriate role of "visual expertise" in democratic societies? Faye Ginsberg describes how "cultural activists ... use imagery of their lives to create what one might call an activist imaginary" (297), and Hart Cohen explains that "'moral pause' ... entails the notion that the power enjoyed by the media to make and circulate images and sounds should be accompanied by the responsible deployment of that power" (314). While these chapters on indigenous media perhaps go the furthest in recognizing the fluid, power-imbued boundary between media consumers and producers, fuller theoretical engagement with the complexities of literacy and expertise in a sensual medium is left for future work.

In general, the book is conceptually accessible and would be appropriate in advanced undergraduate or early graduate classes that take a critical perspective on mass communication, visual media, or information technology. Recent sociotechnical developments not addressed in the volume -- most posing similar or related ethical challenges -- only serve to highlight its timeliness. The explosion of camera- and videophones (particularly in Japan) and videoblogging, the popularity of Flikr and similar websites for photo-sharing, fierce competition between emerging DVD standards, and most recently the provision of syndicated content for download to handheld video players (such as the ubiquitous iPod) are just a sampling of relevant innovations in digital consumer media. The wholesale shift away from film-based products to digital product by major photographic suppliers (Kodak and Nikon in particular) is likewise indicative, as is the provision (by Creative Commons and other nonprofits) of royalty-free media and flexible image and video licenses for public use. From the mosaic stitching of global, high-resolution satellite imagery via Google Earth to the tumultuous aftermath of the circulation of anti-Islamic cartoons in Europe, visual media continue to challenge ethical consideration widely across many scales and phenomena. It has been suggested that "to make an exact image is to insure against disappearance, to cannibalize life until it is safely and permanently a spectacular image, a ghost ... The image and the real mutually define each other, as all of reality in late capitalist culture lusts to become an image for its own security. Reality is assured, insured, by the image, and there is no limit to the amount of money that can be made" (Haraway 1984, 41). While it is true that an often touted advantage of digital technologies over analog is the "exactness" with which they can reproduce an image, Image Ethics demonstrates how, in Dona Schwartz's words, "digital imaging has shaken the public's faith in photography" (30). It is of the greatest significance that this volume foregrounds that paradox and the latent ethical challenges of a cultural shift into a "digital age."

Haraway, Donna. "Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936." Social Text Winter #11 (1984): 20-64.

Lane DeNicola:
Lane DeNicola is doctoral candidate in Science & Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a lecturer in Digital Technology & Culture at Washington State University Vancouver. His dissertation alloys ethnographic and literary inquiry into India's earth remote sensing program and its relevance to the global markets in geospatial and environmental information. His research interests include the cultural and political dimensions of modeling, simulation, and visualization technologies; complexity and social responsibility; community informatics; and the pedagogical uses of gaming and information technology.  <denicola@alum.rpi.edu>

©1996-2007 RCCS         ONLINE SINCE: 1996         SITE LAST UPDATED: 12.10.2009