Photojournalism, Ethics and Truth
Is truth a feeling? Can a photograph ever be honest? These were the questions that were never asked, but were ringing in my ears when I left the World Press Photo panel discussion on Ethics and photo-journalism, ironically held in Singapore and ‘sponsored by the Straits Times’, as our moderator managed to tell us repeatedly with a knowing smirk.
I would like to say at this point, that I am an outsider. I do not take pictures, let alone make photos and I have a huge amount of resepct for the profession, which is why I think unpicking what was really going in is fascinating and yield some significant insight into the state of photos and photojournalists.
The discussion itself was fascinating and I am sure there are many good précis’ of the comments from Sim Chi Yin, Sarker Protick and Pete Muller, all three of whom are hugely respected, immensely talented and with unimpeachable integrity. But the most interesting part was the narrative arc that was formed as the panel discussion went on. Taking the starting point as the recent jump in detection of photo manipulation, all three were robust in their defence of the profession against manipulation, both digital as well as the much harder to detect, but far more insidious staging of shots. Yet, as the talk went on, the clarity of ethical lines being drawn became increasingly blurred.
The pieces of their own work that they shared mid way through the talk all contained as much of them as it did their subject. From Ms Sim’s incredibly moving story of Chinese gold miners suffering from silicosis, to Protick’s intimate portraits of his ageing grandparents, or Muller’s work looking at the masculinity and violence. It was their very involvement that made them moving. As the panelists themselves said, the decisions they took before and right up to the moment of shooting, as well as the editorial and selection decisions made afterwards, their role was to make sense of the story or to create one out of the disparate pieces. Now as an outsider, this act of storytelling is in itself a manipulation of sorts. As they went on to talk about how they ‘make’ (not take) picture, it struck me that the ethical lines that they had started off drawing – never stage, only ever correct in post, don’t alter, no cloning etc. – were more like arbitrary guardrails than hard and fast rules. Though the wire photographers of AP and the like have strict guidelines, many publications do not, and with such a proliferation of photo makers and takers, the hard rules in one part of the industry meant nothing to another.
Thinking about it in historical context, the idea that, face with ‘new’ manipulation there is a need to uphold and enshrine the eternal ethical code of the press photo seems almost laughable. This is not to say that there are no ethics, but rather it is an individual act of conscious and what the rules are in any situation change shot by shot. Ever since someone first picked up a camera to tell a real story, we have all been manipulated. The photograph is possibly the single most effective means of deception. Shot choice, framing, captioning, what you choose to omit from a visual story all helps build a deceit that look like a truth. In light of this the quest to uphold ethics seems quixotic. And this is before we even get into the modern technical ability to manipulate which the initial discussion was so preoccupied with, but somehow seems the least interesting part, or the eternal, psychological one – the Hawthorne-effect inducing presence of the camera and its wielder on their subject. All this is even before we begin to ponder why the photographer has picked up their camera in the first place. This is not to say that I resent their view, opinion or prejudices, but rather to acknowledge that you take those with you, whether you want to or not when you head into field. Arguably, it is those views that make for the best photographs. If there wasn’t that thinking, those convictions, agendas, even, then all photos would be equally mediocre.
The photo itself is never just the photo either. By going into the industry, you are entering into a socio-historical discourse; the mythology of Magnum and the iconography of the past. You are not just capturing an event; you are entering a live discussion about what even constitutes an event, what counts as history. Powerful decisions to make. And with that great power comes great responsibility. And it is that responsibility that leads so many to take the profession so seriously, and rightly so. Every time they go out and shoot, these photo journalists are making decisions that should not be taken lightly, and there are no clear cut rules… So why the big push for codification now?
Fundamentally, the push for codified ethics in their industry is not about manipulation and questions of values but about profound questions of professionalism. The problem with digital is not the proliferation of manipulation, but the proliferation of photographers. Equipment has not only got cheaper, it has also made taking photos easier. The craft skills are being eroded by the efficiency, accuracy and ease of a DSLR compared with taking actual photos – I occasionally use a new digital professional camera and once in the past took up an old East German Werra 35mm camera for a summer, and other than both capturing images, they have nothing in common; like the difference between a model T Ford and a self-driving car. Couple that with cheap airfares and a huge increase in affluence and travel, every kid with a Canon and an appetite for destruction things their Robert Capa. Just look at the sales figures for Leica-badged digital camera. All this tech is eroding the craft making it easier to take good pictures, and very few of us can actual tell the difference between the good and the great anyway. It is worse for photojournalist that writers even. I can’t put this piece through Aftereffects and stop it from being mediocre. Faced with this a Guild-like codification serves the purpose of protecting their livelihoods from erosion by Amateur-enthusiasts, but more importantly, allowing them to vocalize their integrity. For it is a question of integrity, not ethics. The ethics has always been blurred of going to war, famine, suffering disaster, misery or just common garden sadness, joy or fear. Profiting from evoking human emotion is a difficult line to tread, but one that I am happy that the professionals do, in the name of educating, teaching helping us to understand the world and ourselves through these events. It has always bee about integrity, as there can be no hard rules in these situations. So the subjective values of the photographer are the only thing there to guide. I think we should celebrate that.
The best photographs help us feel something that we struggle to comprehend. They do not paint 1000 words, they evoke an emotion. And delivering emotional truth, telling a story from the complexity of these situations requires enlightened subjectivity. It requires the first manipulation of picking up the camera. All subsequent manipulations after that pale into insignificance. I understand the desire for some kind of code, but I feel it does the talent of these visual storytellers a disservice.