Case study three: Doing creative practice ethics in photography and film…

Name: Julien Scheffer

Doing: PhD, Tasmania College of the Arts, University of Tasmania.

Doing creative practice ethics in photography and film…

Julien Scheffer is an PhD scholar at the Tasmania College of the Arts, University of Tasmania, whose research project involes photography and film. His project examines how the mobile phone mediates relations between peoples’ experiences of the world and with others, through researching contemporary portraiture and the art movement, the New Aesthetic, as “the distinction between the real and the virtual worlds and how they are kind of merging and gradually overlapping.

How you experience the world around you and how people experience you and I’ve been … looking at that from a specific perspective, so trying to make works that either emulate this kind of presence, or question it, or challenge it, or try to, to emulate it; to trigger [the experience] in viewers.

Project description:

…Most of the project has been about finding out some relationships between kinds of body language and the use of mobile devices and how you can represent that artistically as a way of finding out about how mobile device use shapes people quite literally. The latter stages of the project, so in the last few months, has been sort of gradually working toward a focus on the kind of or the kinds of presence and attention that emerge out of mobile device use and how what you can find out about this type of being with other people, this type of presence that is shaped by the use; the everyday casual use of mobile devices.

Julien’s project involves photographing, and filming people, using their mobile phones and examining the ways that it shapes them. Its subjects are of contemporaries—families, friends, students and colleagues. Thus this research then engages in institutional ethics in the area of dependency: if there are relationship dependencies (ie. friendship, teacher/student relationships, family members) involved, how do invited people say no? How contact is made; how participants are chosen to be invited; and what you want them to do, how much of their time the research will take; issues of consent; who has veto of the images? He observed:

The main thing for me was really … yes, understanding the risks associated with pressuring people. And also, I was also at a later stage wanting to photograph students, so they weren’t students of mine but they were students and as a researcher and as a casual teacher at the university I was told that there was risk of … there was a possibility of pressuring people inadvertently because, because simply of the position I hold. And even if I’m not asking people I know, the issue was that students might feel a bit intimidated to say, “No”. Or intimidated by [me], or might find it a bit difficult to say “No” or to raise any concerns. So there was like a power relationship that could affect … That’s something I understand well but hadn’t really thought about initially, so yes; I considered that quite a risk; a potential risk.

Ethics process experience:

In Julien’s experience in gaining ethics approval from the university, his supervisors had less experience in the process as working with people wasn’t a part of their own research. He took advice from ethics administrators. The feedback from the ethics board involved asking him to identify what his ‘participants’ were to do for the project. Julien felt that the ethics process limited his options to follow through emerging ideas when developing his creative project:

I hadn’t really thought about ethical risks before I started the project or when I started it, it only came up eventually and it wasn’t something that I had thought of as being an integral part of it. So I do think it’s [the ethics process] important, if nothing else because it’s not obvious. At the same time, the way it’s currently framed as, in my experience at least, it comes up as an obstacle rather than a parameter.

In fact, the thing is the first few times that, when I was in touch with the [advice person], we didn’t quite understand each other because they said to me on two occasions the same sentence by email, something along the lines of, “I realize that your project … in and of itself does not pose any ethical concerns, but you need to do this, this and that.” And I thought, well that’s a bit silly; it’s obvious to them that there are no ethical risks involved in this, yet I have to present it, to explain it in a way to obtain approval, to explain it in a way that limits me in terms of how I approach it, how I develop the project. So it felt like I was limiting myself when there was no need to and I thought, well that’s probably an issue, a communication issue here rather than an ethical issue.

Initially with my first application, I sent it through and it was returned to me saying that I needed to expand on some things, some sections. Yes, specifically the section that was about the methodology; what I was planning to do with my participants, as they call them. I had explained what the project was about and I had explained what I wanted to do in more, more abstract terms and more conceptual terms; what they wanted to know was exactly what I was, what I was going to do practically, physically with these people. 

It’s the small things about it that was frustrating, the vocabulary used that felt very disconnected from the reality. And so instead of being helpful, instead of feeling supportive, it felt like it was, it really just felt like a chore.

Project issues:

Some of the issues Julien encountered in his project included: dependency and power relations; recruitment of participants; briefing of participants; ethical risk to others, and himself; participant access to the photographic outcomes, veto of images/video.

Well, it’s interesting; initially I wasn’t too sure. I was simply told that I had to obtain approval for my project. Through applying I’ve actually realised a couple of things; the thing that was a bit of a discovery for me was that there were ethical risks involved with asking people to participate to help you out that – I was planning to ask friends to model for me – and I didn’t realise that the fact that they were being my friends presented a risk because I could inadvertently pressure them into helping me out. That’s something that the ethics approval process made me aware of. There were other aspects of it; making sure that people are treated well, understand what they are getting into and that they have a right to access the photo et cetera.

In conclusion:

Subsequently, after my ethics application, my initial application and the second one, I have found myself quite reluctant to go, to explore certain directions because I took the ethics process into account and just rejected certain experiments; things that I thought might be worth doing, off-hand, just because I thought that it wasn’t worth the trouble. Which is also I think, that’s a big impact on, on the research itself, you know, not to discard things before giving them a chance to, giving yourself a chance to find out whether they are actually interesting or not. That’s you know, the awareness, my own awareness of the ethics process has contributed to that.

So that was very frustrating because I did realise the value of it and it’s made me aware of a few things and I’m actually quite grateful for that. I think it’s very important. It was, it’s been an ongoing source of frustration that it’s framed as a barrier, rather than as something to empower you to do it better, you know what I mean? The vocabulary that comes with it: You need to get approval; you need to apply to get approval or permission to do certain things, it feels very … it feels like you are basically asking for permission, and in trying to get it and giving them what they want so that you get your permission. But I don’t think it should be like that, it should really be a way for you to become aware of certain risks and … incorporate that in your own practice and in your own research but it’s not currently like that.

More about Julien :



Thesis link: When available


Julien was interviewed by Megan McPherson via Skype in April, 2016.

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