Ethics, Visual Media and the Digital

As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.

Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.

There is no shortage of voices commenting on the state of ethics in anthropology (myself and Jonathan included), and an increasing number of those voices are now zeroing in on certain forms of anthropological research that seem to nurture special ethical conditions. Visual media, for instance, have triggered an entire discourse on ‘visual ethics’, which – as reviewed by Andrew Clark – seems to be premised on a series of claims about the uniqueness of the image and, hence, its incompatibility with existing ethical codes (or its wholesale neglect by those codes).

While all data forms arguably have their own unique repercussions, it is difficult to dispute the argument that existing ethical schemas are often inadequate for managing new or emerging modes of media application. As one example, assurance of anonymity is regularly a blanket condition in most ethical frameworks. Yet, quoting from Clark with regards to imaging work, “it is often impossible, impractical, or even illogical to maintain the anonymity and confidentiality of individuals in artwork, photographs and film.” Beyond picturing practices alone, however, online modes of engagement now often hinge upon visibility and identification—thereby colliding with standard anonymity policies. This puts us in a position where we must stretch out the nature of our ethical structures if we expect our research programmes to survive. As Brent Luvaas has been compelled to ask in the course of his research into online self-promotional work, “what if our subjects don’t want to be protected? What, in fact, if their very participation in our research is contingent on the exposure it might bring them?” To my mind, these questions ultimately demand a reorientation of prevailing ethical paradigms.

The intersections between visual data/practice, digital technologies and web-based engagements are especially thorny. For instance, following the work of Sabra Thorner (among others), many long-brokered matters – such as (digital) repatriation of indigenous material culture – are now the subject of deeper turmoil, as efforts to take control back over channels of circulation and ownership bump up against now growing (especially Western, neoliberal) claims to “open access” and “open sourcing”.* In this case, the seemingly ethically-inspired open access / open source movement could be seen as anything but ethical: a kind of dubious enterprise aimed at usurping hard-won rights. In other words, the movement itself becomes a moral conundrum, with privacy and openness seemingly pitted against one another. To borrow from Kendall Roark, they are “framed as competing interpretations of the public good.”

Digital culture, in fact, impacts on the whole nature of work and play, leisure and labour, increasingly blurring the boundaries between them, and therein contributing to a larger precariousness in human existence (for more, see the work of Ekbia and Nardi 2014). The connectivity and supposed ‘democracy’ of the web mean that skilled communities of practice (e.g., as seen in Thet Shein Win’s research on visual effects artists) are more and more easily undercut. On top of this, the entire means by which we define and interact with other humans is complicated as hybrid forms of life become enrolled in acts of pleasure, surveillance, etc. (see Mitali Thakor’s enquiries into 3D avatars as means of entrapping pedophiles), or as media artefacts are drawn into specific political and ideological disputes (see Miguel Diaz-Barriga and Margaret Dorsey’s analysis of photography of the US-Mexico border wall in relation to national security).

Moreover, in an increasingly digital world, assurances about the security of data are transformed when those data have no physical manifestation whatsoever, but rather exist entirely in virtual form (e.g., see Barbara Hoffman’s enquiries into cloud-based storage), and are otherwise all-too-effortlessly deployable in myriad and often unintended fashion (e.g., see Aaron Thornburg’s examinations of the dissemination of digital student work).

In such a complex climate, the “ethical absolutism” (Wiles et al. 2012 citing Plummer 2001) that many anthropological research programmes hit up against in formal ethics review processes is wholly inappropriate. As Clark (2013) discusses it, existing ethics guidelines might not “constitute ethically appropriate guidance at all.” And, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that – in ethically-contentious fashion – researchers themselves variously resist and subvert ethics processes (via, for example, forms of ‘creative compliance’ or ‘half-truths’) in order to survive the system. Or they cope by otherwise purposefully doing a disservice to their practice and interlocutors via scaling back, sanitising or censoring their own work (see Wiles et al. 2012).

To borrow from Clark (2013), “Ethical moments emerge at the interplay of relationships (including power inequalities)…when ethical quandaries cannot be resolved by resorting to pre-determined universalistic principles.” Such moments obviously don’t just manifest in the context of research, but are part of ordinary life. Here, a kind of ‘everyday ethics’ – navigated by all human beings in the course of their day-to-day existence – informs individual behaviours. Such ethics are frequently brought to bear in engagements with digital and online cultures (see Clark 2012) where, for example, regular acts of self-censorship or self-exposure are performed (e.g., see the work of Jessika Tremblay on online Indonesian political participation, and el-Sayed el-Aswad on online Emirati self-representation). But how such ‘everyday ethics’ are accounted for in institutional ethical policies, or how they are robustly assessed and refined by individuals themselves, is far from clear.

Taken together, all that seems obvious about ethical practice is that it is fluid and complex, driven by practical needs, organisational frameworks, related regulatory requirements, specific intellectual circumstances, not to mention individual and collective moral tenets. In other words, ethics tend to be necessarily situated (after Clark 2012, 2013), depending upon recursive reflection and constant questioning of one’s processes, objectives and modes of engagement.

Our experience, then, suggests that the most meaningful means of attending to and shaping ethical action is in dialogue with others. A growing number of forums now exist that aim to facilitate such dialogue, including the AAA’s own ethics blog (which, disappointingly, seems rarely used), the Centre for Digital Ethics and Policy’s online meeting place and associated resources/events, and Jonathan’s and my own efforts at annual ethics symposia, among many others. As anthropologists we arguably have an ethical responsibility to participate in these conversations, and to continue challenging existing ethics infrastructures that do not align with everyday human behaviours. Such participation also has the benefit of strengthening bonds across our communities of practice and amplifying our programmes of study. So, if you’re not already part of the conversation, please join—it’s an opportunity to shape both research and broader human futures.


*This predicament is also reminiscent of Boast’s (2011) discussion of the neocolonial museum.

Sara Perry

Sara Perry is Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye ( and tweets at @archaeologistsp.