By Teresa Eggers

A growing global trend of employing facial recognition technologies (FRTs) has increased risks of compromising the privacy and safety of anyone filmed or photographed, especially in countries with repressive governments. WITNESS is concerned with how this trend affects activists, but I wondered how professional photographers are adapting to this changing atmosphere. Have their conceptions of ethical photography been altered? Have their own technological strategies changed?

I brought some of these questions to John Moore, a Pulitzer Prize winning war photographer and staff photographer for Getty Images who covered the Egyptian revolution last year.

Historical Photography Standards: Out of Date?

In particular, I wanted to know how he balanced the verifiability of his photos depicting protesters in and around Tahrir Square, with his subjects’ privacy and safety – did he ever blur the faces in his photos, for example?

His responses reflect the present conflict between widely used photo standards that are rooted in the film world of yesteryear and an entirely new breed of ethical dilemmas emerging from the technologies of today.

For example, Moore answered that he would never blur a face after a photo was taken because digital manipulation of editorial photos was strictly prohibited by Getty Images, although photographers do employ many in-camera techniques such as shooting from behind or focusing the lens on background in order to maintain blurry faces in the foreground.

Moore’s perspective on the consent of those he photographs was as follows:

“When it comes to protests, it’s pretty simple. A public protest is designed to be, well, public. People turn out to express their support or opposition not in a vacuum; otherwise they would do it at home, but rather to publicize their viewpoint. It’s never the case that the organizers don’t want the press to come to their event, (although the authorities might not want us there).”

In regards to the possibility of FRTs being used to identify his subjects, he noted that protesters, who didn’t want to risk exposing their identity, generally covered their faces with scarves. “Maybe people were more naïve in the past, but at this stage if you’re showing your face you’re okay with being photographed.”

Moore’s first point raises questions about how facial blurring fits into a larger conversation about digital image manipulation in the professional world, and this has profound implications for activists and citizen journalists hoping to capture images that mainstream media are willing to use.

Ethical, Emotional and Economic Considerations with Image Blurring

Getty Images isn’t unique in their approach. According to The New York Times image policy, for example, manipulations of documentary photos in its paper or blog, outside of cropping and basic color correction, are prohibited; though it does cite that editors may be consulted about exceptions. This is a standard basically set by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics, though I’ve yet to find an ethics code which speaks directly to appropriate uses of facial blurring in specific.

As Moore explains, “Although it would not be unethical to blur out a face or put a black box, for instance, over it, I think most news photo agencies and publications just want to keep it simple and say we should not digitally manipulate images as to content, with very few exceptions, and leave it at that.”

A screen capture of the face blurring mobile app, ObscuraCam, from the Guardian Project and WITNESS

In the age of Photoshop, publishers are certainly right to be weary of digital manipulation, but would it be possible to create a set of rules specific enough to allow for helpful digitization tools, such as blurring, that might save lives without opening the floodgates for more nefarious digitization tactics? If so, then how does it change the licensing value of a photo? How does it affect the believability or verifiability of a photo? And perhaps most importantly, what effect does facial blurring have on the image’s ability to illicit emotional responses from viewers?

Implied Consent Vs. Informed Consent

 Beyond these issues of digitization, there remains the issue of consent. When discussing “implied consent” Moore was speaking specifically to his experiences in Egypt during the revolution, but it does illustrate the vagueness of what constitutes responsible image capturing today. Yet the near ubiquity of photo technology could make professional concerns for privacy at mass public demonstrations feel sometimes futile – Moore noted that, “In the case of Egypt, almost every photo I shot was also taken, in one form or another, by a dozen average people with their cell phones.”

While stricter protocols could hamper photographers’ ability to capture important and compelling images, an outcome probably more harmful than helpful for human rights advocates, new facial recognition technologies make safety concerns ever more alarming.

Do people understand that a photo of them at a protest covered by journalists could end up in a newspaper? Probably. Have people made an informed decision regarding the possibility that that same image may later be used to identify and locate them using facial recognition and/or crowdsourcing techniques? Maybe not.

And this is not a hypothetical situation. In Iran, during the political protests of 2009, the government posted photos and videos from demonstrations that were shared on social media sites like YouTube, then circled suspected dissidents’ faces in red and asked viewers to write in to identify by name those people whom they recognized.

Today the world of photo ethics remains dominated by traditions of the pre-digital photo era – cropping is okay because it existed in film photo practice, facial blurring is not because it’s a digital technique. But this is a standard based in a historical context, not one that reflects the present political and technological climate, and to ignore this is to ignore the reality into which the images we capture are dispersed.

In light of changing technologies and their applications, perhaps it’s time for photo and news agencies to re-engage discussions about responsible image use and which kinds of digitization tools are most appropriate for the modern context in which images exist today?

Teresa Eggers is a writer and filmmaker. She has studied Technocultural Studies at the University of California (Davis) and Global Studies at The New School (NYC).

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