Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ethical Issues in Photojournalism

Long time ago, when I was young(er) and stupid(er), I used to go around with my camera hoping for some disaster to happen so that I could photograph it. A plane crashing, a banker jumping off a building, stuff like that. We're talking about the film era of SLR photography, long before consumer digital cameras, and way long before smartphones, Instagram, and Facebook, and as a result shots like these were extremely rare. Thank goodness, I never found myself in such a case. Thank goodness. I am certain of that now, with the experience, wisdom, and hindsight of decades.

Today's article is about ethics in photography and, in particular, in ethical issues in photojournalism. The inspiration for this article came from the following image:

This is an image with which I participated (and won 2nd prize) in a photography competition. I am very pleased with the way it turned out, and, something you cannot know, I am particularly happy with the way the entire process worked in terms of preparation: I knew already before I left home, before I even packed my bag, what kind of image I was out there to make. To prove the point, here is another image of the same series. It is far less successful, but you can see the concept involved:

So, how are these two images connected with ethical issues in photojournalism? I will tell you: The eyes of the woman on the top image absolutely haunt me. Perhaps this was a large part of what made that photo so successful - the whole spectrum of thoughts and emotional responses (of affect, in other words) is captured in that look. And that made me feel bad, in some abstract way.

Let's face it, this is absolutely nothing compared to what other photographers have to face in their daily assignments. War zones, refugee camps, starving children, homeless people... Take your pick from the long list of misery. Still, when you're out to photograph people in various kinds and levels of vulnerability, you must be ready for the questions that your consciousness will produce - before, during, and/or after you take the shot, with each stage affecting the outcome of your photo.

- Should I feel sorry for the people I photograph, if they are sad/in despair/in need?
- Should I try to help them instead of taking photos?
- Should I feel bad if I photograph something unpleasant?

I will offer no answer to these questions, because it depends on a lot of things. It depends on the situation, you as an individual, as well as the subject of the photo (doesn't the word 'subject' here feel a bit dehumanizing?)

What I can and will offer, is some idea on how ethical issues in photojournalism can in fact influence your photography. This can be both good and bad in terms of how successful your photos will turn out.

Before you take the shot:

This might at first sound a bit weird - you might wonder, "how can I ethically assess a situation before I even know what comes my way? How can I know if I will feel guilty about taking a photo if it hasn't happened yet?"

Well, let me tell you how: Imagine. Imagine you're walking in the urban center, camera in hand, and you face some unpleasant situation - picture a car accident, someone hurt, a fire in some apartment, or something else. Or picture something far less threatening, like a street beggar or a homeless person. What do you do, do you take the shot or not? Here's a very concrete, simple piece of advice: Don't ever photograph something if you can't imagine the scene as a picture. If you can't imagine yourself post-processing a RAW file, adjusting brightness, lowering saturation, or what not, on a picture depicting, say, an emaciated, hungry, desperate homeless person (who might be already dead by the time you transfer the photos to your computer), then don't take that shot. It will haunt you.

Of course, this is something directly connected with scope. Why would you take a photo like that, what would you do with it? If you're a freelance photographer, or perhaps someone interested (or even already working) in some human rights organization, then a photo like that would serve a purpose, and it would have a deeper meaning. On some abstract way, it would probably be the closest thing you could do to actually help such people in a long-term, more comprehensive way.

If, conversely, you are just someone taking pics and you haven't thought what you would do with them, then the negatives probably are more than any positives.

During the shot:

It should be self-obvious, but I guess I need to mention it at least once in this article: If you are able to read this webpage and to operate a digital camera, it means you are smart enough: don't ever put yourself in any kind of danger in order to grab a shot. Chances are, if you're reading this, you're not a war photographer - but if you are and you happen to be reading AmateurNikon from somewhere in Syria, hey, thanks for being a fan! Most probably though, you're just an enthusiast who likes to take photos, correct? You might be a beginner, an intermediate, or an advanced photographer, that is irrelevant. But, what I'm getting at is, you're not doing this for a living. So, your #1 priority when taking photos such as the ones we're discussing today is to stay safe. Your #2 priority is to do what you would have done even if you weren't taking photos. In other words, if you just witnessed a traffic accident, call for help before anything else and follow any instructions given by the emergency center.

If you have reached the stage where you are actually taking photos of something unfolding before your eyes (whether it's a fire, a street fight, or some homeless person), you have two paths to follow:
a) you are affected by what you witness
b) you are not affected by what you witness

The complexity of what I'll be trying to say might be too great to contain within the confines of this article, but I'll try to simplify it and express myself as best as possible. So, here goes: Take the photo as if you are affected, whether that is really the case or not. There is no other way to make a great image (not without years and years of experience, anyway). The delicate part in this is that it must still be a photo you will be comfortable with (remember the previous step: don't ever photograph something if you can't imagine it as a picture). Being comfortable with the photo does not mean you are indifferent in terms of affect. It means that you are still able to "translate" your affect into an image.

- What do you feel witnessing the scene? Fear? Sadness? Disillusion? If you don't feel anything strong, what do you think someone would feel?
- Stick to the feeling/thought. Emphasize it through your framing and exposure decisions.
- Post-process it accordingly.

After the shot:

This is the part where you need to process not only the picture but also your own thoughts about the situation. How has taking the shot in question changed you? Has it changed you at all? Do you feel remorse, regret for taking it? If you could turn back time, would you still take the photo of someone bleeding after a street fight? Would you still take the photo of someone crying on the street? Would you still take the photo of a homeless person?

Why? Why not?

In the era of digital photography, we take photos far too often and, which is worse, far too often without properly acknowledging what we're doing. Photos are cheap - heck, they are free - so we just press the shutter. With photojournalism in particular, this won't do. You must be 100% connected with the reality of the scene, assess its ethical repercussions (as well as its psychological impact on your own self) and then and only then decide whether it is a photo worth taking or not.

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