Ethical Aspects of Using Digital Images of People for Education


Jill Evans and John Mahoney



The last two decades have seen huge technological advances in the creation, manipulation and distribution of images. The relatively low-cost availability of imaging hardware and software has led to a widespread enthusiasm for creating digital images for a range of purposes. Many of these self-created images are put onto the Web with little thought about how they might be used by others or the moral rights of those portrayed in those images. Increasingly, however, those who publish and use images of individuals in electronic format are being called on to justify their actions and motives.

The BioMed Image Archive ( is an established archive of freely- available images for non-profit use in learning, teaching and research in the medical, dental and veterinary disciplines. The archive has entered a new development phase that will allow educationalists to deposit their own images with the archive from their desktops. Offering the community this degree of autonomy could lead to a possible loss in control of overall quality and credibility, thus it is particularly important to provide clear ethical guidelines on what image content is and is not appropriate to potential image donors.

Initial research has found that current guidelines on ethical considerations deal in a generic way with research materials emanating from individuals but are lacking in specific guidance on the publication and use of image-based materials. The various guidelines can also be interpreted in a number of ways. Although project research initially focused on the medical applications of such images, it soon became apparent that the legal, ethical, cultural and social issues arising have far wider implications for a very broad range of subject areas.

Human and Moral Rights: Public Awareness

Until recently, widely-reported accounts of legal disputes over ownership of images, purported invasion of privacy, and claims of pictorial misrepresentation have been almost exclusively in regard to celebrities. However, increasing unauthorised use of images of private citizens, for example captured via Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) or satellite technology and broadcast on television, or in advertising campaigns, has raised public awareness of the potential for abuse of their innate human rights to privacy and to be treated with dignity.

Education has traditionally been seen as somewhat exempt from the concerns of the commercial, industrial world because of the widely-perceived altruism and benevolence of its pursuits but these assumptions can no longer be taken for granted.

Education and Image Ethics: Brief Examples

Typically, a lecturer might place a tutorial, including text and images, on open access on the Internet, where it is publicly available without restriction for downloading. Images in the tutorial might be downloaded by another and used in a brochure to promote, for example, awareness of sexually-transmitted diseases.

A number of questions arise as a consequence of this: did the lecturer get permission from the individual to publish their image openly on the Web? If permission was not obtained, what actions could be taken by the person portrayed to have the images removed? What legal actions could be taken by the person portrayed? Who would be legally responsible: the lecturer or his/her institution? Should the lecturer have anonymised the image so that the individual was, in theory, unrecognisable? Does the lecturer’s institution or department have a policy regarding the publication of such images? Who is the owner of the images: the lecturer or his/her institution? What are the legal implication for those who downloaded and used the images out of context? What are the legal and moral rights of the subject of the image regarding misrepresentation of their image? There does not appear to be clear, agreed upon, consistently applied solutions to many of these questions. As a consequence there is confusion and uncertainty about how to handle and use images of people.

In some fields it is particularly important to be aware of any changes or manipulations that an image has undergone as well as the chain of authorship and responsibility for the creation of new versions. Image users need to know that they can trust an image and that there will not be a problem if they should use it. Users also want to be sure that what they see is the real truth or reality, a certainty that is becoming harder to establish when image manipulation is so easy to carry out and so difficult to detect. Unauthorised manipulation of images threatens the integrity of both the subject of an image and its owner or creator. It is a violation of both the moral rights of the individual and copyright laws.

These unresolved issues could have serious implications for the creation, storage and use of reusable learning objects.


Many lecturers have a keen interest in incorporating digital images into their teaching practice and tools. Information and computer technology permits lecturers to use digital images in a variety of ways to help students to learn and to perform more effectively. However, there are ethical issues regarding what images can safely be put on the Web and what can safely be done with images downloaded from the Web. A contentious but pressing issue currently facing those in education is how they should approach the legal, moral, ethical and professional challenges of using digital images of people. Addressing these issues fully will have implications for currently accepted practices and behaviours. These are issues that must be addressed and all those who use images of people, whatever the educational context, must be prepared to modify their behaviour and presumptions.

While it is important that those depicted in images are treated with respect and dignity, it is also essential that unique and valuable image collections are not destroyed or hidden because of fear of prosecution or bad publicity. The BioMed Image Archive is hoping to work with the education community to debate this difficult area, to share experience and to formulate some shared approaches to handling the collection, dissemination and vital preservation of irreplaceable visual resources.