User:Luisa Moura/graduation seminar/thesis/process/outline

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Title / question

The Aesthetics of Ethics

What is the role of photojournalism in the (visual) identity of ethics?


The aesthetics of ethics is a research on photography, regarding the social reportage genre. It reflects on the way photography is used to illustrate and communicate social conflict. The visual grammar in question makes use of a great exposure of intimacy or violence, has a complex composition and regards a non staged snapshot of reality. It is a form of photography that is imbued with a great deal of realism; it claims minimal interference with the scene it witnesses. Even though it’s clear that a photograph is always a subjective framing of an action, this visual grammar is still very effective transmitting a sense of objectivity. It doesn’t only have an extremely rich formal value, but it also stands as an identity for the contents it usually portrays. The way conflict is photographed became its very identity, and it determines a mode of perception. The intrusive nature of social reportage, even though heavily criticized, is considered to be legitimate, once it informs. To accept the social reportage as it is, became a form of ethical burden. It is justified, once it is supposed to appeal for social empathy and political reform. This research tries to approach the social reportage as an illustration of ethics; it looks into the aesthetics of the photograph in order to reflect on the nature of its concerns.

Thesis Outline


CHAPTER-01: the importance of typology for the establishment of a visual language

Photography, or the mechanical reproduction of one’s image, grew side by side with the increased attention on individual identity as tool for governmental control. The constitution of the Disciplinary Society that Foucault writes about relies on the depth of nuclear categorization, based on the scrutiny of human particularities, impossible without the help of objective means of visual documentation. The individual value attributed to each member of society appeared as part of a general institutional effort of documenting, archiving and categorizing individuals for the most various purposes, from criminal control to medical research. In the process of rendering visual an increased world of phenomenological complexity and allow comparison between what is believed to be similar or opposed, photography relied in the use of simplified typologies of record. This chapter attempts to approach the connection between modes of representation and the way it shapes the very identity of contents portrayed; it reflects on the role played by photography in the definition of a contemporary notion of identity.

FOUCAULT, Michel, “Discipline and Punish”, Penguin, 1991

The chapter on “The Means of Correct Training” unfolds the mechanisms at play in the definition of individual identity, general control, surveillance and behavioral correction. It is fundamental in this chapter to intuit the role played by photography in this process in the late XIX century.

HALL, Stuart, “Who Needs Identity” from du Gay, P. Evans, J. and Redman, P. “Identity: a Reader” pp.15-30, Sage Publications Inc, 2000

In this article Stuart Hall refers to the definition of identity in processes of discursive exclusion; the field of “equality” that defines identity finding its boundaries in the field of “what is not”; the role of photography as tool of methodic comparison.

MAXWELL, Anne, “Picture Imperfect 1870 – 1940”, Sussex Academic Press, 2008

In the Chapter “Emergence of Eugenic Photography”, Anne Maxwell contextualizes a broad range of attempts to illustrate individuals and groups with the clear ideological purpose of social reform based on racial, economical and social clearance.


CHAPTER-02: This chapter introduces the Social Reportage as a core research subject. It attempts to describe, analyze and delineate what I consider to be a visual grammar of social photography. It deals with examples of Dutch contemporary media regarding social news and locates them within a broader perspective regarding the historical heritage of the genre. It makes use of comparison between different modes of representation, in order to reiterate the recurrent connection between a form of photographing and the topics it illustrates. It addresses in particular the association of the social reportage with a form of realism and introduces the reflection on its mechanisms. Which are the formal elements on a photograph that suggest this realistic nature and what is its ultimate purpose? Realism imbues the genre with a great informative authority, even though its dynamic nature (snapshots of true action) might drag it paradoxically away from any form of objectivity.

BOOT, Chris, “Magnum Stories”, Phaidon, 2004

The Magnum heritage illustrates the way social reportage evolved from still informality to an actual sense of movement, drawing a line between photography and the truth of moving image; the storytelling genre claims a greater capacity of snapping reality and intruding fields of social, political and economical relevance.

TAGG, John "The Burden of Representation - Essays on Photographs and Histories" Communications and Culture 1988

John Tagg refers to photography as an expression of a given historical, political context and denies the importance of discussing the discipline only from a formal or artistic point of view. John Tagg writes about the connection between the Foucault’s disciplinary Society and the use of photography; unfolding several typologies of photographing throughout history, reflecting on its formal characteristics, meaning and heritage.


CHAPTER-03: reflecting on the political effects of objective visual information

In this chapter the connection between the ethical legitimacy of the social reportage and its aesthetics is reflected upon. What do the aesthetics of this form of photography, of this typology of looking at, says about the social concerns that support it? This chapter reflects on what appears to be a paradox between the legitimacy of exposure in the social reportage and its apparent inefficiency on generating engagement or political consciousness. In order to pursuit objectivity and a sense of realism, the social reportage puts at play an intrusive way of photographing that finds its legitimacy in the ethical need to inform. But people seem to engage into imitating models they feel identified with; this is the phenomena that unleash greater consumption levels or consistent collective movements. Social reportage plays neither with factors of identification, once it focuses on the portraying of error, misery or despair, neither in the illustration of something that people might be willing to re-enact themselves. The exposure to this visual grammar is commonly understood as the truth that one must be confronted with in order to be politically conscious, but it is frequently unknown how to act upon it. This leads to a great amount of guilt that finds mainly two outputs: the acritical tolerance regarding this kind of imagery and the vulnerability towards donation-based action.

NIETZSCHE, “Beyond Good and Evil” from “The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1909-1913)”, the Project Gutenberg EBook, 2003

(Reading in process) By reading this work I attempt to get a broader view on the discussion about ethics, its parallelism with modes representation and forms of acknowledgement of truth.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques, “The Emancipated Spectator”, Verso, 2009

The paradox between the essential passivity of a spectator and the ethical urge to induce action through socially concerned performance; essential reading on the understanding the fictional potential of realism within representation

WITTGENSTEIN, Ludwig, Lecture on Ethics, Cambridge, 1933

Approach to Wittgenstein’s connection between aesthetics and ethics as one same thing, or as similarly transcendent concepts, not expressible in language


- Revision of photographic tactics regarding social concerns: an allegorical approach to ethics.



Ethics: Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity;

Aesthetics: A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.

Allegory: A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one

Iconography: The visual images, symbols, or modes of representation collectively associated with a person, cult, or movement

Photojournalism: The practice of communicating news by photographs, especially in magazines.