Your soul for a photograph?

Day one of any good Buddhism course would probably mention the five precepts: a list of guidelines to help us stay on the ethical straight and narrow.
Second only to not killing is not taking that which is not given…..This poses a big dilemma for me as a “mindful” photographer.
When we squeeze the shutter to capture an unmissable (aren’t they always?) candid picture, are we taking something away from the subject? Or can we justify our action with the literal fact that “no one owns the light”? After all no one believes a camera steals your soul any more do they?

I have to admit that I’m a naughty boy and have in the past walked straight into a person’s personal space, held up my camera and taken a shot. Mostly I am so fast that I’m not even noticed. My heart races when I’ve done it, and I’m never sure if I’m making really bad karma for myself, but it can make great pictures.

Here is one of those walk by shootings –

phone girl

I spotted the subject in a crowded street; a space opened up behind her at just the right moment and I got the shot. She had no idea that she’d been photographed. Was that ethically right? Is it right for me to publish her picture? It’s all legal, but the morals seem blurry.

The Buddha said that the intention behind an action is very important.

I took the photograph because I thought she looked beautiful and unique and I wanted to share the moment that she was a part of. To me that seems like an act of respect.

I think the Buddha gets it right. No photographer goes out with the intention of making people look bad (if you do then stop it!). We want to spread something of how we see the world and if we are seeing with respectful eyes and trying to wake people up to the world around them then surely that can’t be bad.

What do you think?

By the way, the Five Precepts are:
Not killing
Not taking that which is not given
Not lying
Refraining from sexual misconduct
Not taking substances that cloud the mind

 Text and photograph © all right reserved Miles Pilling

5 thoughts on “Your soul for a photograph?

Add yours

  1. You pose a question I have long given thought to. The pro photogs I have learned from agree that it’s legal to shoot and publish the photo of a person if they are in the public sphere such as a street, sidewalk, outdoor cafe… but your question reaches beyond that… I remember handing a set of photo post cards I’d done of Native Americans in a community I lived in in Alaska to Native friends in NY. I got an immediate cold shoulder and recalled right away the idea that you take something of someone’s soul away when you photograph them. I have in time steeled myself with the idea that the overall good that comes from sharing and learning from photos somehow, hopefully trumps this, yet, I know now to try to use more of an ethical heart when making those decisions – by asking: is this photo about my artistic ego or can something greater come of it? Thank you for bringing up this fine line and allowing me a chance to ponder it. GREAT SHOT by the way! Thanks for sharing! – Renee

    1. Thanks. You touch a nerve when you mention artistic ego. I think we all have that “need” to show people how good we are at something. I’ve noticed that a lot when I’m taking pictures and that it can actually be a hindrance; getting in the way of me creating something more authentic and original. When I started this blog, I hoped it might be a springboard for discussion about just this sort of thing, so thanks a lot for commenting.
      I’ve had a quick look at your blog and am looking forward to exploring it more deeply. It looks like you are having some wonderful experiences. Thanks again for your input. Best wishes – Miles

      1. Miles, thanks for the visit. It is so hard to remove the observer from the observation… anthropologists get this idea quite well… if it helps to think of it in those, rather than Freudian terms. He’s gotten a bad rap. But, yes, I agree so much with your exploration on this idea – that exploring it is so worthwhile. Perhaps there is a place to delve into the idea of what the artist sees or wants to portray in an image – especially as we photogs know that feeling in that fleeting moment when we shoot something – there’s something there that we’re not always able to identify at first and it may not work its way to the surface except through a collection of images. It works that way for me through writing too.. . where we call it the “long arc” – just thinking. Enjoy these discussions much. Stay in touch. thanks for dropping by.

  2. Extremely thought provoking post, thanks for sharing. I am careful what I post and try to be conscious of who I’m photographing and why, particularly since I heard one local in Venice complain about all the tourists taking photos of them – we’re not a photo opportunity she said – and it stuck with me. Now I think long and hard before using photos on my blog, and if anyone ever asked me to take a photo down I would do so immediately. Keep up the great work though, am loving your photos!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Interestingly, literally the first picture I took in Venice of a man at an open air fruit and veg stall provoked a hysterical verbal attack by the lady that was working on the stall. I was shocked and saddened. She was not even in the picture. The man who I photographed was shrugging his shoulders as if to say what’s all the fuss about. I actually recorded some of the outburst because it came out of no-where and was totally over the top. I was quite careful after that, but usually am to be honest. I do think that if you live and work in a tourist hot spot, you have to take it on the chin if you are photographed. Sadly, some photographers take our “right” to take pictures too far and it spoils it for those of us who are more respectful. I’m afraid it’s a pet rant of mine that in most countries (except Germany I think), there is no privacy law to stop photographers from taking pictures in public places of people as long as they are not used commercially. In the UK where I live, in some areas you can expect verbal abuse regularly from people if you take photographs in public. I’ve had some scary moments. There’s a high level of paranoia. Now I have a lot of difficulty walking because of my MND, I rarely take “street” photographs any more. I can’t run away! lol Seriously though, I think it will be a sad thing if photographers find they can’t document candid life any more. We just need to be respectful (from both sides).
      Love your blog by the way. Those chocolates look delicious!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: