The School of the International Center of Photography in New York City in June of 2019 (photo by ajay_suresh via Flickr)

As demonstrations against anti-Black violence and systemic racism surge across the nation, Noah Morrison, a former student, TA, and employee at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, grew concerned by pictures shared by some ICP students on social media that failed to conceal protesters’ faces. When he reached out to them expressing the dangers of exposing activists’ identities, some agreed to take down the images, but others did not — and Morrison believed formal directives should come from the institution.

“I am a Black, queer photographer who has been a member of the ICP community since I was 16 years old,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Over the last week, I have attempted to explain to students and faculty in the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism Program that they have, at minimum, an ethical responsibility to disguise protesters’ identities when photographing them.”

Efforts to engage ICP on issuing guidelines for protest photography, however, have proved fruitless, said Morrison. Dozens of e-mails sent by him and his colleagues to Karen Marshall, chair of Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism at ICP, went unanswered. Internal communications circulated by ICP Director Mark Lubell struck some as vague and unspecific, stating the institution’s interest in “examining emerging issues in photojournalism” but failing to take immediate action.

“Even as we penned and relayed an open letter with our demands supported by almost 150 community members, there was and is no attempt to engage with us on the terms laid out,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “There have only been meaningless PR-tinted public and private statements intended to erase necessity for any accountability owed or institutional reckoning.”

Morrison outlined five demands to ICP: that it mandate students to remove all online protest photos showing distinguishing features and discipline those who don’t; publish an institutional ethical framework for photojournalism; make Critical Race Studies a learning requirement; and commit to having Black people make up at least 30% of its student body, faculty, and staff within a two-year timeframe.

On June 9, the ICP published a statement on its website expressing solidarity with Black communities. The center pledged to provide equity training; launch a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative; and discuss issues such as protection of protestor safety, privacy, consent, and freedom of expression in a new series of online conversations about documenting protest.

But Morrison and other members of ICP Center Blackness Now, a recently-formed, Black-led effort to hold the institution accountable, view these measures as superficial.

“They are choosing to capitalize on this moment by having public talks about the issues brought forth without including us in any way,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “This is anti-Black.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, ICP said that it acknowledges the concerns around the ethics of photographing protesters, but it has not required students to “censor their work,” citing its commitment to “free expression and documentary practice.”

“Through our community, we have heard how the photographing of protests has raised concerns regarding ethics and documentation — specifically the issue of whether it is ethical to show identifying features of individuals publicly engaging in protest,” an ICP spokesperson said. “We provide an open and safe educational space for important dialogue around the ever-evolving issues in photography, and provide our students with the best tools to approach their work with integrity.”

The ICP also told Hyperallergic that it does not currently have information available on the percentage of faculty and student body that is Black. “Our DEI initiative will include plans to ethically and with consent collect self-identifying demographic information from our student, faculty, and staff populations,” the spokesperson said.

Fears that activists will be identified and targeted from protest photographs rapidly circulating on social media are rooted in real incidents of visual policing. In Seattle, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police issued a statement requesting civilian photographs and footage to locate suspects of looting and vandalism.

“This is just one example of many where the state surveillance apparatus is being used in service of the deeply anti-Black prison-industrial complex,” said Morrison. “The capacities of digital photography are being exploited and weaponized against Black people across the country.”

Earlier this month, Hyperallergic reported on a new iOS software tool that allows users to automatically blur faces in photos and erase their metadata. The images can then be shared without revealing information as to where and when they were taken or the identity of activists, details that can unintentionally aid the police or the FBI in tracking and targeting them.

In a recent essay, William C. Anderson explores the ways in which photojournalists justify violent or incriminating images on the basis of so-called “journalistic objectivity,” an argument that puts lives in danger. “Photojournalists and others in the media that simply want to exploit the reality of the world that currently exists without thinking critically about their role will be responsible for enabling it,” writes Anderson.

Media outlets such as NPR are being held accountable by consumers who believe protesters’ faces should be obscured for protection, prompting difficult conversations that weigh the risks of editing news images versus those associated with personal safety.

But “the age-old ethical concerns regarding identity and consent in photojournalism fail to adapt to the hypermodern severity of the anti-Black state surveillance apparatus,” said Morrison. “A current photojournalistic ethics needs to include a deep and researched understanding of the interactions between platform, algorithms, and image sharing on social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, as well as the utmost urgency in the protection of Black life.”

Mentioning its plans to host public panels, ICP told Hyperallergic, “We recognize that due to advancements in facial recognition technology, the protection of protestor safety has emerged with urgency in the field of documentary practice.”

Late last week, the center’s Chief Experience Officer reached out to the group with an invitation to join ICP staff and an independent facilitator in “restorative dialogue.” Morrison declined the invitation, but said the group would be open to hearing from individual staff members regarding “actionable support of their demands.”

“We feel ICP is betraying us, our communities, and its own mandate by not addressing, and swiftly rectifying, this issue during a time of heightened protest against Black death, in service of Black liberation,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “We believe that ICP has a responsibility to Black people inside and outside its community to invest in decolonial and explicitly pro-Black ethics, in service of a world where photography is not an appendage of the carceral state, but a tool for liberation.”

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

7 replies on “Community Calls on ICP to Set Ethical Guidelines for Protest Photography”

  1. As a member of the ICP community—I am a recent recipient of the ICP Infinity Award, and have lectured and had book events at that institution over several decades—I’m as much a part of that community as anyone.

    As far as I know, the International Center for Photography (ICP), as a museum and educational institution, is not in the business of setting ethical standards for the use of photographs in print or online. These Codes of Ethics are mandated by entities such as the National Press Photographers Association and the Associate Press among others. Both state: “We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.” That would, of course include “blurring” the subjects…at a demonstration or anywhere else. No photographer who blurred the faces of protesters would expect to have those photographs published…or to continue to receive assignments. I’ve spoken with a number of Black and Brown working photographers—which Mr. Morrison is clearly not—who agree that “blurring the faces of demonstrators” makes no sense from the standpoint of publishable photographs, as dong so would cause them to face severe consequences. On the issue of facial recognition technology being used to find and punish those demonstrating against the state, a friend of mine—who is also a (Black) member of the ICP community—texted me the following this morning, “If one wants to protest anonymously, then it is the responsibility of that individual to protect THEMSELVES by making it impossible for any technology to identify them…” He went to on to make a point that I also agree with: “However, I don’t believe that one can, or frankly should, anonymously protest the government. I think it is important for them to know who we are and how we feel. I think we also need to appreciate that with protest often comes pain and consequences.” As one who spent my young years in the streets, engaged in various acts of protest, and who spent time in jail as a high school student for acts of civil disobedience, the idea of protesting anonymously seems antithetical to the history of voluntary civic disruption. Or as one working photojournalist friend who is Puerto Rican said on a Facebook thread about this topic, ‘You all can go ahead and blur your photographs. But me, I want to KNOW who my heroes and sheroes are who are standing up for us.”

    I would note, regarding facial recognition technology, that it is indeed pervasive, wide, and deeply used and misused. But the recent instance of the white female protestor, who torched a police car, and was then traced and arrested based on an Etsy purchased T-shirt and a tattoo shows that facial recognition alone is not the sole means of identifying someone, since her face was completely covered. So clearly blurring faces doesn’t eliminate the use other forms of open source intelligence. Conversely, there have been any number of instances where a photojournalist has altered a photograph—sometimes only slightly—and suffered serious professional recriminations.

    Inveighing upon ICP Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism students and their faculty to engage in the practice of blurring their photographs in direct violation of professional industry standards seems entirely counterintuitive and ill placed, unless one doesn’t actually practice in the field that one is critiquing. I suspect there may be a more substantive conversation to be had regarding ICP’s systemic inequities, which most mainstream institutions are guilty of to more or lesser degrees. These inequities need to be seriously confronted and corrected. But this issue of blurring photographs to protect protestors strikes me as an oddly misplaced and overly loud and incessant conversation, especially in an education context where students may in fact be in training to go on to work in a field that would never publish their “blurred” photographs for ANY reason. On this issue ICP should politely but firmly inform Mr. Morrison that they are the wrong forum for that particular issue.

    I would encourage Mr. Morrison to take up the more substantive and legitimate structural issues with ICP and engage them in a meaningful conversation that would hopefully also translate into action and change. The issue of altering photographs however is a battle to have with those entities that are actually charged with legislating those issues. ICP is not that entity.

    1. Thank you Dawoud. This is a vital discussion for all professional and citizen journalists as well as activists and allies to be having. With the emphasis on DISCUSSION, not mandate. Ethics are a complex issue in any realm, and the freedom and right to photograph has a long history of both righteous activism and abuse. Times change, society changes and technologies change, and all must be considered. The intuitional legacy of inequities, and responsibilities oF ICP and other cultural institutions are another overlapping conversation. The main thing is- schools and institutions are not in the business of determining and teaching ethical standards, they are about examination, research and discussion as part of a student’s education.

    2. Dear Dawoud Bey,

      Thank you for your comment. I want to respond to you point by point:

      Your specific claims to membership in the ICP community I assume are not based on any relationship between worker and employer, student and school, nor free laborer and institution. Your claims to membership in the ICP community are related to your photography career and how ICP holds you and your work up to present a certain vision of their foundation. Mine are as a student, free laborer, and minimum wage worker. The differences are stark.

      In regards to who gets to define ethics, what is the rhetorical purpose of shifting blame to photographers who would “not expect” to have photographs with blurred faces published, and away from institutions that perpetuate this culture? This seems to me to be evasive, circular argumentation, as you really seem to be saying, “I think gatekeeping institutions shouldn’t change to reflect cultural shifts in what constitutes the protection of Black life.”

      In this vein, it behooves me to think that the only bodies that need to be concerned with ethics are the NPPA and the Associated Press. Although unsurprisingly this line of thinking works to further delegitimize the work of anyone who dares to speak up who does not have a platform you may deem appropriate. ICP needs absolutely to be among the leaders of that conversation, stemming from its core mission and role as “the world’s leading institution dedicated to photography and visual culture,” as well as champion of, ““concerned photography”—socially and politically minded images that can educate and change the world.”

      I resent the personal attack that I am “clearly not” a Black working photographer for the reason above. You cannot and will not delegitimize me based on this gatekeeping, professionalist classism. Who gets to have a public voice on these issues is already constrained enough, and I’ve spent enough time in private thinking about and researching these issues that I deserve to speak on them.

      On protesters, you again use the victim-blaming and conservative point that everyone in public has a responsibility to protect themselves if they want to be anonymous. Why, then, should any photojournalist of protest do anything to protect their sources ever, if the onus is always on the protester to protect themself? Why do you think that individuals have more power or agency in protecting themselves than the institutions that oppress them?

      The thought that, “with protest often comes pain and consequences,” is a plain fetishization of protest, flattens history, power dynamics and related identity distinctions, and clearly reiterates the violence that liberalism vis-a-vis neutrality has inscribed into the foundations of the vast majority of American institutions.

      I agree with you that blurring faces oftentimes is not enough to protect protester’s lives and identities, which is why I do not make mention of this in the demands I put forth, I only mention “distinguishing features”.

      I do have an active practice in photography, and do so thanks to my time at ICP. This practice is deeply contemplative about privacy and the ethics of imaging any subject, but in particular Black subjects. I’m hoping you are aware that Instagram already violates “professional industry standards” in their handling of copyright. Professional industry standards have a place—but my demands are not aimed at critiquing Time Magazine covers or Washington Post spreads. My appeal has been to deeply question the careless circulation of Black protesters’ representations on social media platforms that are used to target Black people in times of protest.

      Why should students merely be trained to go into the photojournalism industry without deepened understandings of antiBlack racial subjectivities that they abuse and capitalize on? Why should photojournalists photograph protests if they have no understanding of their own role in enabling what is being protested against? As William C. Anderson says, “Photojournalists and others in the media that simply want to exploit the reality of the world that currently exists without thinking critically about their role will be responsible for enabling it.” The “it” in this case is a police and surveillance state that unabashedly condenses the possibilities of Black life at every turn. If students do not learn about this “it” in school, then in all likelihood they will not learn about it.

      I engage ICP because ICP is my community. ICP is where I learned where to print from a negative. ICP is where I met lifelong friends. ICP is where I learned how to present myself as an artist, and a person in the world. I love ICP and always will. For these reasons, and always out of love, I am demanding ICP deal with structural antiBlack inequalities in their institution, as well as with the core reasons why image practitioners trained at their institution have such limited understandings of ethics, and are so quick to capitalize on movements that they do not fully understand. The best way for ICP to engage the latter, and to lead their institution into the future, is for them to devise an ethical standard of their own.

      Sincerely,
      Noah E. Morrison
      ICP Center Blackness Now

    3. Dear Dawoud Bey,

      Thank you for your comment. I want to respond to you point by point:

      Your specific claims to membership in the ICP community I assume are not based on any relationship between worker and employer, student and school, nor free laborer and institution. Your claims to membership in the ICP community are related to your photography career and how ICP holds you and your work up to present a certain vision of their foundation. Mine are as a student, free laborer, and minimum wage worker. The differences are stark.

      In regards to who gets to define ethics, what is the rhetorical purpose of shifting blame to photographers who would “not expect” to have photographs with blurred faces published, and away from institutions that perpetuate this culture? This seems to me to be evasive, circular argumentation, as you really seem to be saying, “I think gatekeeping institutions shouldn’t change to reflect cultural shifts in what constitutes the protection of Black life.”

      In this vein, it behooves me to think that the only bodies that need to be concerned with ethics are the NPPA and the Associated Press. Although unsurprisingly this line of thinking works to further delegitimize the work of anyone who dares to speak up who does not have a platform you may deem appropriate. ICP needs absolutely to be among the leaders of that conversation, stemming from its core mission and role as “the world’s leading institution dedicated to photography and visual culture,” as well as champion of, ““concerned photography”—socially and politically minded images that can educate and change the world.”

      I resent the personal attack that I am “clearly not” a Black working photographer for the reason above. You cannot and will not delegitimize me based on this gatekeeping, professionalist classism. Who gets to have a public voice on these issues is already constrained enough, and I’ve spent enough time in private thinking about and researching these issues that I deserve to speak on them.

      On protesters, you again use the victim-blaming and conservative point that everyone in public has a responsibility to protect themselves if they want to be anonymous. Why, then, should any photojournalist of protest do anything to protect their sources ever, if the onus is always on the protester to protect themself? Why do you think that individuals have more power or agency in protecting themselves than the institutions that oppress them?

      The thought that, “with protest often comes pain and consequences,” is a plain fetishization of protest, flattens history, power dynamics and related identity distinctions, and clearly reiterates the violence that liberalism vis-a-vis neutrality has inscribed into the foundations of the vast majority of American institutions.

      I agree with you that blurring faces oftentimes is not enough to protect protester’s lives and identities, which is why I do not make mention of this in the demands I put forth, I only mention “distinguishing features”.

      I do have an active practice in photography, and do so thanks to my time at ICP. This practice is deeply contemplative about privacy and the ethics of imaging any subject, but in particular Black subjects. I’m hoping you are aware that Instagram already violates “professional industry standards” in their handling of copyright. Professional industry standards have a place—but my demands are not aimed at critiquing Time Magazine covers or Washington Post spreads. My appeal has been to deeply question the careless circulation of Black protesters’ representations on social media platforms that are used to target Black people in times of protest.

      Why should students merely be trained to go into the photojournalism industry without deepened understandings of antiBlack racial subjectivities that they abuse and capitalize on? Why should photojournalists photograph protests if they have no understanding of their own role in enabling what is being protested against? As William C. Anderson says, “Photojournalists and others in the media that simply want to exploit the reality of the world that currently exists without thinking critically about their role will be responsible for enabling it.” The “it” in this case is a police and surveillance state that unabashedly condenses the possibilities of Black life at every turn. If students do not learn about this “it” in school, then in all likelihood they will not learn about it.

      I engage ICP because ICP is my community. ICP is where I learned where to print from a negative. ICP is where I met lifelong friends. ICP is where I learned how to present myself as an artist, and a person in the world. I love ICP and always will. For these reasons, and always out of love, I am demanding ICP deal with structural antiBlack inequalities in their institution, as well as with the core reasons why image practitioners trained at their institution have such limited understandings of ethics, and are so quick to capitalize on movements that they do not fully understand. The best way for ICP to engage the latter, and to lead their institution into the future, is for them to devise an ethical standard of their own.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to respond Noah. I won’t go into a point by point response to anything you’ve said here. I will only reiterate that I believe that asking ICP to devise an ethical standard that runs contrary to that which currently exists in the field for photographs published in newspapers, magazine, and other outlets as anything other than “Photo Illustrations” is a non-starter. And my definition of “working photographer” refers to those who have to actually make a living providing those entities with images (NOT just covers) that are governed by a set of well known professional protocols. I haven’t spoken with a single Black or brown working photographer, by that definition, who believes this stance regarding the images of demonstrators holds much credibility for them. While there are certainly other conversations to be had with ICP, a “demand” to conform to a narrow standard of ethics as you describe them simply isn’t tenable. And I would suggest that the definition of “exploit” and “exploitation” is not as fixed as you suggest.

  2. Very well articulated. I’ll just add a personal note here in solidarity with all that has been said above.

    Two years ago, I attempted to document an Antifa-led public street protest in my home town of Berkeley as a passive, non-provocative observer on the sidelines, and in less than an hour I ended up being brutally assaulted by them and having my video equipment stolen from me and smashed to pieces. As a life-long progressive leftist I found this deeply troubling, to say the least, as this was the kind of behavior I would have expected from the fascists at the protest or the police, but not from a group that claimed to be anti- the very thing that ended up sending me to to the hospital and being deprived of $4000 in camera equipment.

    As somebody who actively seeks to promote social justice via citizen media and otherwise, I think people like myself on the Left should beware of adopting such an antagonistic position towards an independent media that it leads to an assault on the values of free speech and results in an authoritarian – even fascistic, I dare say – control over public information. Journalists are easy targets on both sides of a feverish conflict where truth assumes less value than scoring propaganda victories, and despite whatever menacing actions are taking place of the other side it is beholden to us on the Left to fight for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, – whatever the consequences. There is nothing ethical or responsible about censorship; if we take away cameras and the choice of what to reveal of a story from independent journalists, then only the state will have cameras and be able to shape the story of events, and that is not a society any of use should be fighting for.

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