Forms of visual expression

Visual expressions have been crucial to the development of modern research, from the 16th century to the present day. Most of what we call research is actually done by visual means. Many simply take this for granted, whether they are researchers working with visual imaging in medicine, or art historians, or scientists visualising statistical data. Nonetheless, there is little discussion across the disciplines as to whether there is an ethical dimension to the use of visual expressions.

What are visual expressions?

Visual expressions are involved in many different reproductive methods and materials: photographs, graphs, tables, drawings, objects, film, web pages, as well as a variety of digitised images from X-ray or ultrasound machines, scanners or tomographs. So working with visual expressions does in fact go on in most research environments, be it in medical laboratories, in anthropological field work, in art museums or in astronomical observatories. The ethical issues that arise also differ a great deal: they may have to do with accuracy and verifiability in the representation of visual expressions, or the rhetorical means used to present them, or problems associated with the use of images in research involving human subjects, or conservation and preservation, or respect for image rights and integrity connected with publication.

Images as research data

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the volume of images produced in laboratory experiments. The images are of central importance for data acquisition, for data interpretation, and for data publication. Experimental research produces visual data on a very large scale, and today these data are digital. That means that they are also much easier to manipulate than was previously possible with analog photography techniques. To what degree is it acceptable to manipulate these digital images? Is it acceptable to use colours and filters to highlight research results? To remove disruptive elements? To enlarge or reduce the size of the image? The scientific journal Nature has published guidelines on image integrity, based on the principle that images should be processed or manipulated as little as possible, and that all changes must be carefully explicated. They have also published a guide for digital image handling where, briefly, their policy is that all manipulation that is not performed on the entire image is suspect and must be explicated to the reader. Any attempt to make images appear clearer and more perfect they dub "the problem of beautification", although this is not only an aesthetic problem but also an ethical problem to do with what the findings are of the research in question. And the question is where does the line go [u1] between constructing findings, making the findings more easily available and comprehensible, and deliberately manipulating the data.

One of the most recent additions to the rich variety of scientific journals is the Journal of Visualized Experiments, which since 2006 has been publishing videos of scientific experiments. This increases the possibility for repeating experiments and for verification, but it also generates new ethical problems relating to issues of editing, camera angles etc., for which there are currently no standards.

Respect for copyright and ownership

In the type of research mentioned above, it is unclear what the original research object is: a substance that is only visible on an enlarged image, or is the image itself the original research object? In other disciplines the problem is what to do about original works that are owned by cultural institutions or private individuals, which one wants to do research on and reproduce in various publications. Some images and works are protected by copyright; this includes relatively recent photographs and works of art. Others are out of copyright, but are owned by institutions that want to be credited and/or paid for their use. When you take an online image and then use it in a PowerPoint presentation – will you be willing to pay then? Will you give the name of the website you downloaded it from? Will you credit the person who took the photograph and the person who owns the work you are displaying?

These questions are both ethical and political, and misusing images by reproducing them without permission is not only illegal but also ethically problematic, because one is quite simply using someone else's property without crediting them. It may also cause the owners to become more restrictive in posting the images online or sharing them in other ways. At the same time, it is a major problem for research into cultural objects that access to images of the objects is so expensive, even if the owners are frequently institutions that are tasked with preserving a cultural heritage.

With text, it is a universally accepted practice and a clear norm that one should never quote others without crediting them for it. That standard is much less well developed for photography. On the one hand, some people would appear to think that images have not been created but simply show reality as it is, so it is immaterial who took the photograph of the piece of jewellery in the British Museum or of Barack Obama on the rostrum. At the same time, images have a tendency to be viewed merely as illustrations, as subordinate to the text. This is why today there are so many books where research results can be found with the textual sources very carefully noted in the references, while images, which often make more of an impression and can be crucial to the knowledge that is being disseminated, are inadequately dated, credited and perhaps even show something other than what the text says.

Research on human subjects and use of images

At the very core of the question concerning the ethical implications of using images, there are the interests of the human subjects who are pictured. Has sufficient regard been had to their right to privacy? Have they consented to be photographed and their image perhaps to be reproduced in other media? Was the consent informed consent, have they understood what it implies to be photographed? Many of these questions are relevant for all research conducted on human subjects. But there are also some very particular problems related to taking images of people, foremost of which is the greater closeness of the image to reality. Photographs are seemingly more true and real than the written word – which is precisely why they are used so much in many types of research. Therefore it can also be far more difficult to be photographed and filmed than to be quoted. Images can also reveal things one is not oneself aware of, and be very unpleasant to be confronted with, not least if one knows that the images can be distributed to others. Images can also conceal and distort in ways that may be deemed offensive for aesthetic reasons and because of the photographic techniques used. But they can also change meaning when placed in new contexts, and even if a research subject has consented to the images being used, the context may be directly offensive to that individual, either because of the text that surrounds the image or other images that are placed close to it. The same naturally applies to editing of films.

The use of images in research on human subjects also has other aspects than the consequences for the individuals' privacy. There are many questionable aspects of using cameras in field work, and what consequences that may have for the relationship between the person doing the research and the people being researched. At the same time, however, camera and film can be exceptionally good tools for capturing details and events that the researcher was unaware of when the images were taken. Other questions concern the interpretation of the image material. Whether they be psychological experiments or sociological studies, the interpretation of the image is a way of getting a handle on and understanding processes that the subjects themselves are not conscious of. This can be an unconditional benefit for the research, but not necessarily for the individual photographed.'

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Lesley Cawley, Akasie språktjenester AS.