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Ethics and photojournalism

24 April 2010 - EPUK

Award-winning photographer Stuart Freedman argues that the crisis of identity in photojournalism today can only be answered with a greater understanding of subject matter and context.

The recently published biography of the great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński has accused him of inventing a good deal of his work. The biographer, Artur Domoslavski, observes that Kapuściński, “consciously built on his status as a legend” and “extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature”.

I have few heroes in photography, but I hold people like Kapuściński, Bruce Chatwin and Norman Lewis among others as great writers to be read as much for pleasure as literal accuracy. The debate about Kapuściński’s ‘truth’ highlights an issue across all of journalism.

These are difficult times for journalists and photographers: we live in a celebrity culture controlled by big business and advertisers who have a financial stake in selling things which requires constant banality and revision. George Orwell called it Prolefeed.

The question, in an increasingly Prolefed visual culture is how to make a new generation of photographers think before they lift a camera to their eye. The answer, I believe, lies in context.

Understanding circumstances

Whilst not explicitly defending Kapuściński’s voracity for factual reporting his work has to be seen in context. He called what he wrote ‘literary reportage’ and drew on his own hero, Herodotus, whose writings of the 5th century BC were based on story telling and interpreting the world from his travels.

As a master storyteller Kapuściński had the intellectual rigour to understand the circumstances that he was working within.

Narcisse, who is HIV positive, prays with his family at dawn, Rwanda, 2005. Photo © Stuart Freedman.

For a whole generation of photographers it appears that a wider understanding of ethics and cultural reference is now missing.

In 2010 a young photographer, Stepan Rudik, was disqualified from the World Press Photo competition for altering an image. Rudik photoshopped out an offending foot from a frame, savagely cropped the picture and converted it to black and white.

To be fair, this isn’t a million miles away from what Eugene Smith did with his Haiti pictures – except perhaps in intention. Smith was working in a not dissimilar way to Kapuściński – attempting to change the world by showing itself to itself.

Rudik was trying to win a prize, which has somehow (and very sadly) become the defining element of a successful photojournalistic career.

My contention here is not that Rudik was wrong or right (and I honestly feel rather sad for him) but that as photography and journalism stumbles further into the abyss of uncertainty and change, it shows clearly the dilemma that we face.

The industry relies increasingly on (young) freelancers brought up in a PR-soaked, compromised environment armed with digital cameras to cover the world. Cheaply.

Few will have had the time or the financial support to acquire the professional standards and training that were the norm a generation earlier.

A crisis of identity

As a young photographer I aspired to the ideals of those in Magnum, Network, and Rapho. The business was difficult to break into and there were identifiable mentors. No longer.

We are all journalists now. And there is an ocean of mediocrity masquerading as the best photojournalism.

An army of young photographers treat the developing world as an extended gap year in which to launch their careers into a media that they have no understanding of.

And the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant that a generation of photographers covering war now presume that ‘embedding’ is the norm.

But more – it seems to me that photojournalism itself as a mechanism for storytelling is having an identity crisis.

In the last decade or so we have seen photojournalism turn inward. The loss of traditional outlets and the availability of instant communication has led to photographers merely congratulating each other and forgetting their ethical responsibilities.

As Stephen Mayes, a World Press veteran and currently MD of the VII agency, commented last year, “Photojournalism is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world.”

The presiding styles of photo reporting

A cursory look through today’s newspapers, magazines and web sites reveals that two styles have come to dominate the modern photo documentary.

The first, a cold, bastard child of formalism, seeks to show people dehumanised – as stationary butterflies under glass. Static, bored, disengaged.

The other, which has come to dominate contemporary reportage, shows photographers recording in a sub-Gilles Peres pastiche of abstracted shadows and blurs.

This technique bears little relationship to what is being photographed. It is “stylistically derivative.” There is no attempt to explain and let ‘truth be any kind of prejudice’ (to paraphrase).

It is about the photographer who “never dignifies anyone as a fellow human being.” It also fundamentally fails to understand the context within which Peres worked in Iran.

It seems to me that in the rush to create a new visual storytelling in the post-newspaper age, many photographers are overtly marketing themselves as brands: self-appointed heroes who believe they are interpreting the world in a singular way who in reality are shooting visual clichés of suffering because it sells and advances their careers.

Towards a thoughtful future

Alongside this, photography (always the most democratic journalistic medium) has been swamped by an ever-increasing flow of new practitioners unaware of the back-story of an industry for whom these ethical dilemmas are not new.

To be clear – if we seek to enact change through our work within the Humanist Documentary tradition (and surely that’s the point – otherwise we are just voyeurs), we have to speak a language that the majority of our audience can understand.

Honest engagement: Hassan, a victim of the rebels’ amputation policy straps on his articifial arm helped by his young wife, Sierra Leone, 2004. Photo © Stuart Freedman.

It is not that we should stop exploring new, creative ways of expression but within that we must engage in honesty about ourselves, our stories and the way that we cover them.

Part of that is going to mean looking at the stories that we want to make. Not the stories that editors may ask us to do (that’s simply illustrating other people’s words) or the ones that we think are fashionable and will win awards.

To this end we could do worse than look at the NPPA’s ethical journalism treatise which, although a little earnest, at least creates a benchmark. It states that the primary goal of a photojournalist is the “… faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand.”

Self-knowledge and a human centre

We might even try and formulate an ethical framework and in the process of creating such a code re-engage with why we became photographers in the first place, as opposed to ‘image monkeys’ for an industry that treats us as disposable and sets us against each other in a financial race to the bottom.

We might start by asserting that at least we value and respect what we do even if those that seek to employ us and use our work often do not.

The point seems to me to be that professional photographers have to set themselves apart from amateur citizen journalists. It may be that in the absence of a professional journalist, the amateur’s images may run first. But whose images will the public trust? The veracity of what we as professionals produce should be the defining factor that sets us apart from the herd.

Our images should be the trusted ones – analogous to a journalist’s direct quotes.

I want to see a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution. It should have self knowledge and a human centre but understand the tradition from whence it came.

Then and only then we will be judged not just on our photography but our humanity and approach.

Be close to people. Engage with the world. Be excited by it and want to make it a better place by your work.

As Robert Capa said:

“Like the people you shoot and let them know it.”

Stuart Freedman has spoken on war crimes on Capital Hill, Washington, and at the Oxford Union. Twice winner of the Amnesty International photojournalism award, Stuart’s work has been published in Life, Geo, Time and Paris Match, and exhibited at Visa Pour L’Image, The Scoop Festival, and The Leica Gallery: www.stuartfeeedman.com.

The NPPA Code of Ethics

In defence of Kapuściński: “Scrupulous in his journalism, in his books he was capable of inventing in order to make a truth even truer,” writes Neil Ascherson in The Guardian.

Ethics and Photojournalism was adapted from Stuart Freedman’s talk Trying to tell the Story? Ethics and Photojournalism given at the London Photographers’ Branch of the NUJ on March 31st, 2010.

Text and photos © Stuart Freedman 2010

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