Ethics and looking at the other – Gaze and Control – On Foucoult

In this section of the coursework we start to take into consideration the ethics surrounding documentary photography, from both the perspective of the practitioner and the audience. I thought it best to look up the actual definition of ethics before progressing any further:

Ethics: moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.synonyms: moral code, morals, morality, moral stand, moral principles, moral values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, creed, credo, ethos, rules of conduct, standards (of behaviour), virtues, dictates of conscience
“the ethics of journalism”

The opening paragraphs ask us to consider the ethics of how we use imagery. Do we know enough about the people we photograph, do we portray them in the correct way or leave too much open to interpretation? What are the ethics surrounding the naked form? In the image within the coursework, should it have been cropped to not show the woman’s head? All interesting stuff!

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. His thoughts and ideas have been highly influential both for academic and for activist groups, especially those working within contemporary sociology, cultural studies, and critical theory.

Wells (1997, p.95,96) briefly touched upon his theories, of power relationships then leading into the power of knowledge and the gaze, when mentioning how John Tagg,(1988), following on from Foucault’s ideas,  analysed the increase in the power of photography through surveillance and observation.

Documentary was and is, seen to be part of the process of examination explored by Foucault under the banner of ‘objectification and observation.’ Documentary photography, it can be argued, can assist in maintaining ‘social class hierarchies’, a prime example would be the depiction of the poor through the work of the FSA and the depiction of the exotic ‘other.’

In 1979 Foucault wrote:

Disciplinary power…is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assumes the hold of the power that is experienced over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.

An example of  discipline/punishment and visibility is given as the Panopticon, a prison from which the people in control could view everyone without being seen themselves.


Read the article ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ by David Green (The Camera Work Essays, 2005, pp.119–31).

Summarise the key points made by the author in your learning log.

Within his article ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’, originally published in The Camera Work Essays (2005) David Green mentions the various writings of Michael Foucault; his views on power, in particular disciplinary power in society. Foucault explores the interdependence between power and knowledge and the ‘development of new forms …of power over man.’ This links in with the Documentary module as many documentary images and bodies of work were created as political leverage, to have some kind of power over the audience or to impart knowledge of some kind.  As Foucault stated:

No body of knowledge can be formed without a system of communication, record, accumulation and displacement…no power can be exercised without the extraction, appropriation, distribution or retention of knowledge.

Green discusses the relationship between power/knowledge and truth, suggesting that each society has its regime of ‘truth’, even people who determine what is ‘truth’ within that society. Documentary photography has come under much scrutiny with regards to truth, and photography itself can be recognised as one of the ‘new forms and modalities of power over man.’ However, Foucault insisted that power did not necessarily have to have negative connotations, but could also be used for positive gain; he was also unconcerned with the concepts or methods behind scientific discourse, merely the link to the power within institutions. This links to the power gained by photography as it was in the fields of scientific investigation and criminology, as well as discipline.

These days modern technology has made surveillance an even more prominent feature of disciplinary power; CCTV, dash cams, spy satellites et al have entered the fray.Green summarises by advising us that there are some criticisms of Foucault’s ideas; that they create the impression that power within society is pervasive and resistance is futile.

Foucault disagreed stating that ‘wherever there is power there is potential for its resistance.’It can also be argued that these forms of power are ‘localised and specific’ and must be opposed at this level. In this respect there cannot be just one strategy for dealing with ‘oppositional cultural politics of photography’ (The term cultural politics refers to the way that culture—including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts—shapes society and political opinion, and gives rise to social, economic and legal realities) Therefore to ensure that photography does not become dictatorial or accepted as blind truth, giving it too much power to influence it will be:

necessary to develop alternative ways of working with photography, to develop different photographic forms and devices suitable to the varied contexts in which the photograph is placed and used.


On Foucault [Accessed 03/05/2017]

Wells, L. (1997). Photography. A Critical Introduction 1st ed. London: Routledge.

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