Now that everything has been said and written about the World Press Photo controversy, it’s time for a review. At this point, we’re all agreed that photographing your cousin having sex in a car is a bad idea, right?
But after having shot likely over 6,000 assignments for newspapers, let me humbly submit that reality is…complicated. Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of oversimplification, lack of experience, or self-righteous mendacity. So let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to mock situations in the real world, where you make ethical decisions about what it means to stage pictures, on the fly.
But before you take this pop quiz, make sure to go hungry for the whole day, pull an all-nighter, and promise delivery of images to a client within the next hour – just to simulate other factors in a photojournalist’s workday that can affect decision-making.
It’s only five questions. It’ll go quick. They seem exceptional, but every situation in the field is exceptional.
1. You’re in Honduras for a story about child labor. Your itinerary and transportation was set-up by the reporter, who had many situations to fit into a very tight schedule (frankly, you’re all just lucky to be there at all given dwindling budgets). You finally find a family that is unafraid to speak to reporters. You learn that the child has to take a treacherous path to the job site. The path epitomizes the crazy risks affecting the kid. But it’s Friday, and for some odd reason the boy doesn’t work the day you’re there. You leave that night and absolutely can’t change the travel schedule. Frustrated, what do you do?
A. You refuse to have any part in showing a reality that was not normally happening in front of you. Tough luck, kid.
B. You walk with the child through his path, and see an amazing picture that demonstrates the danger to the poor child. You refuse to take the picture because you put the boy there and it’s not a true “found moment”.
C. You place the child in the path to make a portrait, and demand that the boy keep still with his eyes fixated on you, lest anyone think that a photograph of him looking around or walking down his daily path was actually a reality 6 days/week.
2. You’re given rare access to photograph a presidential campaign headquarters with a dozen other members of the media. Everyone there becomes hyper-aware of your presence, reducing your ability to get candid images. You also get the sense that just before you arrived, the organizers said, “Places, people!” The national campaign manager steps in for a few minutes and is mobbed by the media. A voice in the crowd calls out, “Hey, how about a shot at your desk?”
A. You refuse to take a picture that was prompted by a member of the media (…or was it prompted by an aide?).
B. You photograph the campaign manager at his desk but decide to say something in your caption like, “Campaign manager pretends it’s normal to have a dozen news media photographing him” and you tell your editor. Essentially, you kick the “ethics can” down the road to the photo desk.
C. You photograph the scene, comfortable that because you didn’t stage the photograph, it’s ok.
D. You agree to shoot in the office, but refuse to photograph anything but the mob of people, accepting that most every other news outlet will go with the video or still of him at his desk. Oh well.
3. You’re on the top of a skyscraper, looking down on window-washers for a story about their business. While rappelling down, one of the men says, “Wanna see something?”. He throws his arms back and lets out a howl.
A. You say, no thank you, that was posed for me and I refuse to take the picture.
B. You take the picture and then delete it, because people might think it was a candid moment and you can’t have that.
C. You take the picture because even if it was staged for the camera, he sometimes does do that, making it an honest depiction of the person’s life.
4. You’ve made an appointment to photograph a couple in another state for a story about their infant, who died during a measles outbreak due to lack of immunizations by other parents. You learn that the couple goes every single morning to the cemetery to mourn the child’s death. At the airport, you discover your flight is delayed and you can’t make it that morning. You call and they graciously and earnestly offer to wait for you before heading to the child’s grave. They want their family’s depth of pain to be shared. It’s Saturday and the story is running Sunday.
A. You say, no thank you, I’ll just get a portrait of you at home.
B. You say, ok yes please wait for me, I’ll see you shortly.
C. You tell them, thank you but I’ll only go the cemetery to take a portrait and not anything that might look real because my concerns as an ethical photographer trump your hourly reality as bereaved parents.
5. You arrive to 30% of your assignments and the subjects ask you, “What do you want me to do?”
A. The documentary photographer inside of you screams inside, in multiple waves of pain that leaves you with an empty, shattered sense of the way journalism is supposed to be.
B. You don’t respond because anything you say would be directing or leading your subject. You engage in a staredown and wait for them to take the next step.
C. You say, “What would you be doing if I wasn’t here?” and they say, “ Normally I would be in another part of the state. I’m only here for you.”
D. You say, “OK, let’s do a portrait”, your fifth one that day.
Please share all your answers in the comments, as I’m sure everyone will have different answers. I’m guessing, however, that many won’t. In this debate, I haven’t seen a lot of candor about how difficult it can be to uphold ethical standards in the myriad of situations that photojournalists face.
Besides for the fact that you could get flailed online for saying anything that could impugn your integrity, this is somewhat understandable. Artists and others who see no problems with staging are using these gray areas as a wedge to push manipulated imagery into the world of photojournalism.
It’s maddening and an insult to the photojournalism community as a whole, because once you reject any ethical standard in journalism, you’re on a slippery slope to propaganda.
But fifty shades of grey suits some people just fine. As Pontius Pilate infamously said before washing his hands, “What is truth?”
With an ethics discussion planned at World Press Photo’s Awards Days to add to a previously released report, hopefully the organization will arrive at a clearer standard of picture ethics, and on the honesty of the photojournalism process.
Truth, it appears, needs an ally.