How many of your students are seemingly attached to their smartphones? How many use their phone cameras to take photos and video that they share online via social media? And how many think of themselves as media makers or journalists, governed by the ethics and standards of those professions? If you’re like most educators, you answered the first two questions with something like “lots” or “all of them,” and you answered the third question with “none.”
The fast pace of changing technology has placed a tool in students’ hands that allows them to record and share images with billions of people in mere seconds. Yet very few receive any type of guidance to help them reflect on the implications of their choices. This lesson begins to fill that gap.
Using clips from veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s memoir, Cameraperson, as prompts, students will discuss the complex issues of whether and why those who take pictures (or video) of others need to obtain the consent of their subjects. They’ll use what they learn from that discussion to develop a “pledge” to govern their own use of cameras.
2 class periods plus homework
- Consider ethical issues involved in recording and sharing pictures of other people, with a special emphasis on when and why a subject’s permission is required
- Formulate their own code of personal conduct for obtaining consent when taking and sharing pictures/footage of others
Film clips and a way to share or project them
Step 1: Introduction
Briefly pose this series of questions to students about their experience with taking and sharing pictures or video, or with having pictures or video taken of them:
- Did you ask permission to take pictures or video? Do you think you should have?
- When you were the subject, did you wish you had been asked for your consent?
- What sorts of rules do you think should govern this common practice?
As students are beginning to think about these questions, segue to the larger discussion by letting them know that, since long before it was routine for people to have phones with cameras and Internet connections in their pockets (or backpacks), journalists and filmmakers have been asking these questions.
Tell them they’re going to look at the ways the questions come up for a professional documentary cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson. Johnson has worked on dozens of films in 86 countries over the course of a 25-year career. She’s assembled a memoir, of sorts, by editing together some of her footage that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor (an antiquated reference in its own right in the digital world). The name of the film is Cameraperson, and today they’ll be viewing several clips from it.
Step 2: Screening the Clips
You may use as many or as few of the clips as you choose and as time allows. Pause for discussion after each clip. For each clip, students will want to consider these major questions:
Is Permission Required?
- Does audience matter (e.g., for public versus private dissemination; what venues or methods of sharing qualify as “public”)?
- Does it matter whether the person taking the picture or video is a professional or not?
- Does the purpose matter (e.g., to make a profit; for news purposes; for education; for fun)?
You may want to post these questions or create a handout that students can reference.
Additional clip-specific questions are included below. And, of course, encourage students to generate and discuss their own questions.
Clip 1: “It’s in Public”
- Do you need consent even if you can’t see someone’s face?
- Does being in public mean that you are automatically consenting to being filmed?
Clip 2: “Ask the Family”
Prior to screening the clip, give a bit of background on the case and explain that the man on screen is a district attorney. Immediately following the clip and before the discussion, tell students that later in the film (in a clip they won’t have time to screen), the filmmaker asks the attorney if there are any pictures in the book that he would show the camera. He answers, “I would need to talk to the Byrd family, but if they’ll permit me, I’ll introduce… I’ll release something on the ankles.”
- When should a photographer or publisher be required to get permission from family members? (Aside from dealing with footage that is upsetting, does the age of the subject matter? Should a videographer be required to ask your parents for permission to film you?)
- When is it permissible to show a dead or violated body, even if doing so dehumanizes a subject?
Clip 3: “Government Control”
- Under what circumstances should a government (or any other authority, including owners of private property like malls or stadiums) be allowed to deny permission to film?
- Under what circumstances is it okay to break the law in order to record or share your images?
- When is it acceptable to put people in danger in order to film?
Clip 4: “Competence Required?”
- Do the rules about consent change if you’re filming your own family?
- What if you want to record someone who isn’t competent to give consent?
Clip 5: “Preserving Dignity”
- Do you agree with Charif Kiwan that showing dead or deceased bodies is “voyeurism” and takes away people’s dignity?
- In history, whose desecrated bodies have been exhibited and whose have been kept private?
- Do you agree with Kiwan that mainstream media shows violence and its impact in order to make money?
- Do you agree with the student who suggests that sometimes images of death can stir people to action?
Optional: You may want to end with a brief free-write to help students synthesize what they learned. Invite them to focus on writing about an issue they had never thought about prior to the day’s discussion.
Step 3: Homework
Students may never work as professional journalists or filmmakers, but if they own smartphones with cameras, they will likely be camerapeople at some point in their lives. Their homework assignment is write their own set of rules governing when they will ask for permission to film/photograph and share images of people. The rules should be written in the form of a pledge.
This assignment will also serve as the assessment for the lesson.
Optional: Expand the assignment to look at issues beyond obtaining consent. Have students craft a personal mini code of ethics. Encourage them to look at examples of the codes that professional journalists use (see Resources).
Step 4: Sharing Student Pledges
Invite students to share their pledges by reading them aloud to the class. Encourage students to notice what the pledges have in common and what those commonalities say about their priorities and values.
Introduce students to media literacy questions for reflection from Project Look Sharp, designed to help students think more deeply about the media they create.
Watch the POV Behind the Lens interview with director Kirsten Johnson and discuss the issues she raises.
Use the film as a spark for video production. Divide the class into five groups. Assign each member of Group #1 to shoot (either with a video camera or with a phone) a close-up, each member of Group #2 a medium shot, each member of Group #3 a wide or establishing shot, each member of Group #4 a pan and each member of Group #5 a zoom. Subject matter can be anything the students choose (though you may want to establish limits about violent or overtly sexual content). Have each student upload their footage to a single site accessible to all. Then have each student assemble a video story using shots from the collection. Hold a screening for their finished videos during which they share observations about shot selection, editing choices, what they notice about how things like lighting or sound make it hard or easy to “marry” clips and how the same shot(s) can be used to tell very different stories. Afterward, have students do a 10-minute free-write in which they reflect on the ways that shot selection, framing and editing influence interpretation.
The site includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas.
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
This is a post about government use of media ethics rules to restrict or suppress journalism.
Poynter offers a range of resources on journalism ethics.
This trade organization offers general ethical guidelines.
This easy-to-read blog post covers many of the issues related to getting subjects’ permission to record.
This page provides sample video release forms and a brief explanation of why such forms are necessary.