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The conscience behind the camera: ethics in photojournalism

You have a split second to make a decision that could mean life or death. Do you reach out a hand to a victim of an accident or capture the moment forever in a photograph? If you choose the latter, does the provocative-yet-gruesome image belong on the front page of a family newspaper?

Humanity and ethics are topics of great debate when it comes to journalism. We are constantly questioning where to draw the line between duty as a photojournalist and desire to help our fellow man.  The first journalism class I ever took started the first day with a photograph of a young boy being suspended on a fence by a post pierced through his cheek. Our teacher posed a provoking question: Do you help him down or do you take the photograph first?

Photojournalists take on the role of quiet observer. Many photojournalists spend a substantial amount of time with their subjects to make their presence feel natural and to capture a subject’s true character. If a photojournalist were to interfere in an event, this standard of non-intervention is broken. We must determine in each case if our role is more important as documentarians or protectors of victims. We must prioritize whether to properly convey an event or message to the public with a photograph or act as a bystander who reacts swiftly to prevent more pain or violence to a victim.

Donna Ferrato, an experienced photojournalist, dedicated a significant portion of her career to documenting domestic violence.  Ferrato wrote a book titled “I Am Unbeatable” that included photos from many different cases of domestic violence. In a feature done by The Guardian last year, Ferrato speaks about her experience and the battles she faces with her conscience.

“I was there first as a photographer, not as a social worker,” Ferrato said. “Yes, I would always be divided on whether to take a picture or defend the victim, but if I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman, I’d be helping just one woman. However, if I got the picture, I could help countless more.”

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) created a list of guidelines for photojournalists to follow to maintain ethical reporting. This is what the NPPA asserts: “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.”

The recent Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent photo coverage are one example that I believe have an “overriding and justifiable need” for the public to see. The chaos, fear and tragic injuries caused by the bombings are essential elements to communicate to the public. This event raised questions of security, and many citizens across the country were affected.


Photographer Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image titled “A vulture watches a starving child in southern Sudan, March 1, 1993.” Image courtesy of NPR.

Another consideration an editor has to make is whether the graphic content of some of these pictures, like the one shown here, should be printed in a paper distributed to families. We must ask ourselves if jarring and gruesome photos are necessary to convey the magnitude of a tragedy. The New York Daily News caught heat for altering a photo of a Boston Marathon bombing victim to make it less gruesome, yet many readers are outraged by photographs they deem “insensitive” published after tragedies. One Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer committed suicide after receiving so much heat for his picture of a child that was suffering from severe malnutrition.

There are no definite lines to draw when it comes to documenting tragedy in photojournalism. Each photographer must decide by his or her own standard how to react in a tragedy. Ultimately, as a photojournalist, you have to live with your conscience and decide what your priority will be in the wake of a tragedy.

_By Morgan Horton

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