There is a civil contract implied by photographs. An Israeli writer, Ariella Azoulay, published a book making that point. Henri Cartier-Bresson made it too. He described shooting pictures of people as a “sort of violation,” adding, “if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it.” There can be, of course, and not just when the subject doesn’t like the image.
We, viewing the pictures, are complicit. As consumers of images we bear witness through them. Or we’re voyeurs. In either case we complete a transaction that we instigated, in that a photograph is made hoping someone will look at it. It’s a message tossed into the ocean of time, and how we read that message, whether indifferently or with compassion, can have moral dimensions.
All this is the familiarly messy, philosophical heart of photography, and it’s also the subject of a show that just closed here, itself a mess – “Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography”