The ethics of Photo Journalism

The primary responsibility of a journalist and a news-channel in any medium is to be truthful and to balance that truth with the consumer’s need. In the written and spoken word, there is a lot of room to pivot the way in which information is presented. There is a danger in this, as well, for objectivity can be sacrificed at the altar of over-enthused reporting. But, a picture is worth a thousand words: and speaks for itself. There is no way to soft-pedal a picture and its impact, for what it shows, is what it shows.

What must be told? What kind of information do the readers / viewers need? How do you tell the truth and yet be considerate to the ones going through the grief, for who an image can be a terrible trigger and a reminder of the trauma they went through?

On the supply side, there have been many instances of photographers being ashamed of having taken certain photographs and having won awards for it – when they remained feeling helpless and depressed at not being able to help what they saw. Case in point being Kevin Carter – whose iconic photograph of a vulture waiting for a hungry child to die won him a Pulitzer, but wound up pushing him to depression, and later, suicide. And yet, these photos are important, because they tell the world what words fail to express.

On the demand side, this raises a very pertinent question: are we exploiting grief through pictorial depiction to achieve that state of sensationalism, to paint stories that we forget in our race to keep finding and painting more stories? It is sad but true that news photography sells information and news at anyone’s expense. A famous reporter in India asked members of a task force – which was busy fighting terror – to throw a grenade so she could duck, so the cameras could capture it at the opportune moment. Exploitation of grief for sensationalistic visibility and profit strikes at the very root of the responsibility that the news media owes to the recipients of information. It is but important that more and more people become sensitised to the cause of presenting information to weigh the consequences of the photographs they are about to take. Is it an erosion of the sanctity of respect for the grieving? Step back if it is.

At the recipient’s end, the scrutiny is different. Arguably, it is important for people to know and understand the things that are happening in the world around them. But print journalism is not like digital journalism: which offers the “read more” option or the “click to view pictures (trigger warning)” option. To look at the newspapers first thing in the morning and to find bloodbaths captured in ghastly images, or to find the remnants of the aftermath of violence captured in images that can frighten the consumer of information – regardless of their age and intellect.

When it comes to documenting tragedy, there is a looming question that begs relevant response: how can you effectively document tragedy without exploiting it? In a day where sensationalism is key in any avenue presenting and dealing with information should introspect before taking a photograph, and once its taken, before publishing it.

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