Objectivity is valued by photojournalists, but nothing replaces the ecstasy of an attention-grabbing, technically-pleasing photograph. It might even win an award – and fame for the photojournalist. Sometimes, this feeling can go to the head, and a photojournalist may adopt unethical means to get that “one brilliant shot” and catch the limelight.
That’s where the question of objectivity and ethics arises.
How cool, detached and objective should a photographer be to let a situation become visually dramatic, and not help a subject in physical trouble? Or, in an extreme case, should a photographer encourage subjects to become more violent during a demonstration so that a dramatic picture can be taken?
How far should a photographer go to take a memorable photo? How involved should a photojournalist be to bring to us truths we love to see in our newspapers and magazines?
Here are some examples from Paul Martin Lester’s Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach:
Let’s take the question of misrepresentation. Lewis Hine, at the turn of the century, posing as a company man, sneaked into a factory and took photographs of young, tired children working with dangerous machinery. When questioned for his actions, Hine replied, although it may be wrong to falsely represent himself, the greater injustice was the exploitation of children. And, he wanted the whole world to see that.
J Ross Baughman’s photographs of Rhodesian soldiers torturing their victims were withdrawn from the Overseas Press Club competition because of “so many unresolved questions about their authenticity.” Baughman, apparently, had worn a Rhodesian soldier’s uniform, carried a gun and joined a Rhodesian cavalry patrol for two weeks in order to get the pictures.
One school of thought suggests, “When a photographer misrepresents him- or herself and becomes a participant to violent actions, credibility should be severely questioned.”
Then there’s involvement. Bill Murphy took photographs of a man jumping to his death. He was criticised by readers for not helping to convince the man not to jump instead of taking photographs. Stormi Greene, while doing a story on families near the edge of serious abuse, was criticised for taking photographs of a mother spanking her child when she could have easily helped the mother with her work or by giving money. “The mother needed some help… not the documentation of her treatment of those poor kids on film.”
Is this what objectivity and ethics are all about? When taking that memorable shot, are news photographers completely without compassion?
When questioned, Murphy had confessed, “I did all I could” to persuade the man from jumping, and had to live in agony for years for this decision to shoot the pictures. Even Greener explained, “I was guilt-ridden and frustrated with the ethics that I had to live with, [but] the first rule of journalism is to divorce yourself from your subject… and do nothing but document and record…”
Would Greener have dropped her objectivity if the mother had severely beaten her child? Greener had asserted that, had the mother abused the child, she would have intervened.
Where does objectivity end and ethics take over? When does compassion override objectivity? There are limits to interpretations of objectivity and ethics. Photojournalists – and editors – ought to know that.
Lewis Hine child labour photographs can be found here.
J Ross Baughman Rhodesia photographs can be found here.
[Citation: Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach by Paul Martin Lester, originally published in 1991.]