Above Image by Kevin Carter
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
― Dorothea Lange
After listening to this report yesterday on the BBC Newshour on KPCC, I’m finding myself wracked with thoughts of ethical photojournalism, what it is, and can there truly be such a thing. I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the NY Post’s Doomed cover story, complete with an image of a man mere seconds from being hit by an oncoming subway car, moments away from death. This image, and the actions of photographer R. Umar Abassi have sparked much debate and controversy. Why did no one help? Was there any possibility that he could have been saved?
I am reminded of the tragic story of award-winning photojournalist Kevin Carter, whose harrowing portrait (above) of a vulture watching over a child dying from starvation, captured while on a quest to expose the mass starvation happening in the Sudan, caused such outcry and that he later committed suicide over severe criticism and his own inability to accept his role as witness, not as savior.
But if the goal of a photojournalist is to present the world with information so as to affect change, to call a people to action – is that goal met if when facing that very such situation the photographer stands idly by and does nothing?
Pictures are worth 1,000 words – in the newspaper business that equals about 25 inches of print. Images are one of the most powerful forms of communication, especially in journalism. One image or sound can summarize an event or person or motivate a nation; one image can upset people more than endless pages of print on the subject. Kenneth F. Irby from the Poynter Institute describes photojournalism as “the craft of employing photographic storytelling to document life: it is universal and transcends cultural and language bounds.” - By Carolynne Burkholder
Coincidentally I am currently reading (yes, it’s taking a while) Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon, a rich portrait of documentary photography at it’s best. Lange is best known for her work during the Great Depression, iconic images that opened the world up to the depth of poverty and suffering happening in the US. I am left wondering how hard it must be for a photographer to stand by and not intervene. The National Press Photographers Association has a Code of Ethics that lay out how a photojournalist should conduct themselves while working. I’m particularly struck by number 5…how hard it must be:
NPAA CODE OF ETHICS
Visual journalists and those who manage visual news productions are accountable for upholding the following standards in their daily work:
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
- Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
- Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
- Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
Is perhaps the photograph more important than the life it captures?
What do you think?