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Being an Ethical Photographer

14 June 2001 - EPUK

We see images of victims of war and starvation so regularly they become acceptable to us. We are so used to them that we stop asking why people are in this state and we certainly forget that someone’s gone there and made those images, in a certain way, for a certain reason. So why would anybody really want to photograph this horror?

There are so many issues here that working photographers are usually the last to comment on their work. I can only really speak about my work, and I hope that this may help. There is an inherent problem with this type of reporting. What are we there FOR exactly? Are we there to “show the world” and try to change it? Are we there simply to report as objective onlookers? Or are we there to boost our own egos and look heroic?. I have photographed quite a bit of conflict in the last decade – wars, coups and other unpleasant situations. However, my experience in Sudan meant that I didn’t cover the earthquake in India in 2001 even though I was working in the country at the time. I felt that I simply had nothing to say about it that would be useful. That’s now my benchmark. Let me explain.


I first went to Sudan because of a chance remark. Clare Short, a British government minister, had quipped that what was happening in South Sudan was “a hunger gap, between two harvests”. My aid agency contacts knew this to be false and that that statement would have a direct impact on donation. At the same time, I had been asked to make an essay on the topic of “food” for the World Press Masterclass. I had been for a long time interested in the politics of food and hunger and so went out to do the story. I also took an assignment for Channel 4 news – the idea was that they’d rostrum my stills and I’d shoot pieces to camera in the field/ambient noise. It worked very well. Despite the horrific nature of what was there, I feel I did a good job. I got the message out. What struck me, however, was how absolutely useless the camera is in such situations. It cannot save a single life that is in front of you. I lost count of how many people tried to give me their babies because I was white and they thought I was a doctor. I also cannot describe the trauma that I felt watching so many die.

© Stuart Freedman/Network Photographers

The problem with this work is that to do it’s job (i.e to get people to hand over cash) it has to conform to certain stereotypical images of starvation. The “victim” is African, emaciated and often being helped by white NGO’s. That is what the media here demands – they want the worst looking skeletons. This is because we’ve all seen this before and it keeps happening, so the images must look even more horrific next time. As journalists we have to raise the stakes because otherwise it’s “been seen before”. It’s almost impossible to make a play in a major magazine until TV has covered the story to “confirm” that it’s a tragedy. The fact is that the South Sudanese are involved in a war. They are victims of that, NOT a freak environmental accident that caused their crops to fail. Except if we say that, the donations dry up, so we have to make them victims again. You have to work out your own position on this. Mine was to start a larger essay called “The Politics of Hunger”. I travelled to Burundi, Iraq and Brazil in search of some answers.


I found my own answers about how food is used politically and how useless the camera is to effect real change. That said, I feel I made the right decision to make the story. I did what I could. I must live with that. You must examine your reasons for doing this type of work too. The problem is that it feeds the myth of “photographer as hero”. A very dangerous idea. That’s about your ego. In these situations, I feel either you become an empty vessel and transmit the situation with moral fury and anger that it’s happening or you stay away. People that are dying don’t need you there in either case. Are you there to further your career/look for a prize? Do you really want to succeed off of others suffering? In my book that makes you nothing less than a perpetrator of a crime by association. Which brings me on to how we should behave in such situations. I could recount dozens of stories over the years of TV crews or photographers looking for more “skelies” or arranging bodies or taking a lunch break in a camp full of starving refugees, but I’ll spare you that.

I think the best advice is from a quote from Fred Richen’s about W Eugene Smith’s work, in that he, “shared the same air as his subjects”. Try it and see how unbearable it is. Then you have the chance to make an honest reportage. Finally, I mention the case of Kevin Carter, a member of the “Bang, Bang Club” (look it up), who won a Pulitzer Prize for his image of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in Ethiopia. His suicide note, written just two months after he accepted his award, read: ”...I’m really sorry I didn’t pick that child up…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…”

© Stuart Freedman 2001

Suggested reading: -

Compassion Fatigue – Susan D. Moeller pub. Routledge 1999
The First Casualty (the war correspondent as hero and myth maker from the Crimea to Kosovo) – Philip Knightly pub.Prion 1975/2000

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