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Ethical dangers of facial phenotyping through photography in psychiatric genomics studies
  1. Camillia Kong
  1. Birkbeck University of London Institute for Criminal Policy Research, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Camillia Kong, Birkbeck University of London Institute for Criminal Policy Research, London WC1E 7DB, UK; camillia.kong{at}


Psychiatric genomics research protocols are increasingly incorporating tools of deep phenotyping to observe and examine phenotypic abnormalities among individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. In particular, photography and the use of two-dimensional and three-dimensional facial analysis is thought to shed further light on the phenotypic expression of the genes underlying neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as provide potential diagnostic tools for clinicians. In this paper, I argue that the research use of photography to aid facial phenotyping raises deeply fraught issues from an ethical point of view. First, the process of objectification through photographic imagery and facial analysis could potentially worsen the stigmatisation of persons with neurodevelopmental disorders. Second, the use of photography for facial phenotyping has worrying parallels with the historical misuse of photography to advance positive and negative eugenics around race, ethnicity and intellectual disability. The paper recommends ethical caution in the use of photography and facial phenotyping in psychiatric genomics studies exploring neurodevelopmental disorders, outlining certain necessary safeguards, such as a critical awareness of the history of anthropometric photography use among scientists, as well as the exploration of photographic methodologies that could potentially empower individuals with disabilities.

  • research ethics
  • psychiatry
  • mentally ill and disabled persons
  • genethics
  • disabilities

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was first published online. Two citations were incorrect and correction directions were left in text. This has now been amended

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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