Ethical Photojournalism: Its Authenticity and Impact

John Kaplan. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

I had been an avid photographer since ninth grade and enthusiastically decided to enroll in the photojournalism program at Ohio University. With portfolio in hand, 5 years shooting experience, and more confidence than a 19-year-old deserved, I showed my work to renowned professor Chuck Scott.

Chuck was a bull of a man. Brawny and intimidating but also, as I later grew to learn, an unrelenting supporter and coach for the hundreds of young photographers who have come through his door. The master carefully eyed my work. He took particular interest in a scenic photograph of mine from Yosemite National Park. Taken during a multi-year drought in California, the shot showed an evaporated riverbed transformed into a dry, smooth granite earthscape. Captured at night with a tripod, the composition was made stronger by a bright full moon hovering over the textured composition.

The professor reached into his pocket, pulled out a shiny nickel and said, “Hey. Look here. Just about the right size.” He laid the nickel on my print and had found a perfect match.

It was true, I said, proud of my naive creativity. When I made the print, I placed a nickel on the piece of enlarging paper as it was being exposed in the darkroom, thinking I had come up with a better solution to my novice, blurry technical rendering of natural full moon. As a freshman in college, I yet knew nothing of the ethics and mores of photojournalism, having no idea that I could likely be fired for doing such a thing as a working photojournalist. Despite the power of his personality and God-like influence within the profession, Chuck was gentle with me. He told me to go back out and make pictures that viewers should have every right to believe in.

At that time, the post-Watergate era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the public perception of journalism was riding high. Colleges were jammed with would-be journalists and newspaper photography was making a transition from craft to equal counterpart to the writing side of the profession. For example, starting about that time, as a hiring requisite, photojournalists were finally expected to have journalism degrees too.

Because of staunch supporters of visual truth like professors Chuck Scott and Terry Eiler at Ohio, Cliff Edom and Angus McDougall at the University of Missouri, John Ahlhauser at Indiana, and Howard Chapnick of the Black Star picture agency, the photojournalism industry was making an important transition. Strides toward credibility and equality were being made and photojournalism was on the path to no longer being seen as a second-tier operation in the newsroom. Such gains were made by advocacy of honest picture taking and the resulting integrity that it brought.

A few years before my unknowing indiscretion with the Yosemite picture, I remembered how a well-known photographer had shown me how he painted in birds with “spot-tone” ink on scenic photos of his own. And, when I arrived at the Pittsburgh Press in 1984, I was told that just until that year, sports editors would keep a bunch of cutout photos of hockey pucks in their desks for those prints that needed to have them glued on when the photographer missed the hard-to-capture timing of the stick slapping the puck past the goalie.

Decades later, the profession pretty much recognizes that pictures should not be “set up.” Many newspapers have ethics policies that include staunch photo guidelines. Like most other contemporary professors, I tell my students at the University of Florida not to pose pictures and include an honesty policy with my syllabi. If a spontaneous situation cannot be captured with good planning and astute timing, it is always better to do a strong, posed portrait rather than create a pretend, tellingly stiff situation. When viewers look at a portrait, there is no “illusion of spontaneity,” I say. Viewers should understand that a portrait is posed—the eyes of the subject usually look directly into the eyes of the reader. There is no misrepresentation.

As I mentioned, prior to the past few decades, posed photos rarely were questioned as non-representational of ethical photojournalism. Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II remains one of the most revered “news photographs” of the 20th century. Yet, despite common knowledge that the photograph was an elaborate reenactment made the next day, the photo is still deemed a seminal one.

A minority of photojournalists, including a few famous ones, still espouse that it is okay to consciously stage a scene. By asking their subjects to more dramatically re-create a moment actually makes it easier for their photographs to communicate more intensely, thus revealing a “greater truth,” they say. Yet, I remind my students that rationalizing what might seem like minor choreography in photojournalism opens the door to having none of our work seen as believable.

For example, let us say you are a newly hired photojournalist asked to look for a feature picture for the next day’s paper. You find a child having fun on a swing set in the local park. To get a better picture, you could say, “Hey Johnny, can you swing a little higher?” Or even, “Can you ask your friend, Jimmy, to come join you on the swing next to you so I can get a nice shot of you happy together?”

These are small things, still true to the reality of the scene, with the good intent of trying to get something more impactful for the next day’s paper, right? Well, the kid would likely go home happy, proudly tell his family at the dinner table, and be pleased when seeing his picture in the paper the next morning.

Yet, in some small, but significant, way he will no longer fully trust every other picture he forever sees in the paper, or the pictures he sees online, as well as newsworthy situations portrayed on television. Was it posed, he will wonder? Is it truthful or was it created?

Also, do not forget the issues of financial liability if you asked a child to swing higher and then he fell off!

We must be believable. Each year, I ask my students, all journalism majors, if they trust what they see in the press as truthful. And, almost universally, even budding journalists say they do not.

Our modern-day interpretation of simply knowing not to pose a shot other than a portrait is, in my opinion, a too simplistic foundation for photojournalistic ethics. Merely not setting up a shot is not the same as telling the truth. What about authenticity? Consider deeper questions that every photojournalist should ask himself or herself.

Let us picture a hypothetical situation. A news photographer is sent out to document a routine story about police officers doing surprise vehicle stops to check for seatbelt compliance. An unappreciative motorist argues with officers that he had no right be indiscriminately stopped, leading to an escalation of tension, an abrupt pushing match, and ultimately a situation of possible police brutality as officers subdue the motorist by force with their nightsticks.

The photographer faces a quandary. She is not sure if the policemen actually crossed the line, perhaps knows one of the officers involved, and may even rationalize that the use of force may have been a one-time indiscretion due to provocation or job stress. If the photographer then chooses not to share the image with an editor, or does not advocate strongly to have the photo published, it is a denial of the truth.

If the photo editor also sees the picture but deems it not germane to the theme of the assignment and also neglects to advocate for its publication, it could be argued that no ethical breach occurred. But the choice of whether or not to publish transcends a simple definition of photojournalism ethics. Not publishing the controversial shot shirks photojournalism’s responsibility to society and to the reality of what occurred.

In such a situation, I believe it is always best not to self-censor. Publish the picture and let the readers make up their own minds about the proprietary of the situation. Should publication of the photograph also have the very real ability to possibly incite civil unrest, the photographer and editors would also have a responsibility to carefully, painstakingly, study the image before putting it in the paper, and to seek out both sides of the story before publishing it. This balances the public’s right to know with social responsibility. Since the photo was captured in public, privacy is not an issue here.

The ethics of photojournalism must be about so much more than easy definitions of not contriving a shot. It means being true to yourself and true to your community, too. In fact, the modern photojournalism movement was founded more than a century ago through the publication of photographs that cried for a halt to injustice and the move toward social change.

When we lift the camera, we each make both conscious and subconscious decisions about what is interesting, what is relevant, and what is just. When we click the shutter, those decisions are shaped by our backgrounds and belief systems.

Paul Lester of the University of California describes seminal early 20th century events in the history of social documentary photography in Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach.

Lewis Hine of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, worked in a factory for long hours during the day when he was a boy. Consequently, his photographs of children suffering for many hours at low pay and with dangerously, fast-moving machines were vivid and disturbing. Child labor laws were passed to protect children, a direct result of his photographs.

Fellow social reformer Jacob Riis used his camera to document How the Other Half Lives, a late 1800s photographic chronicle of conditions of terrible poverty among New York immigrants.

Most photojournalists that I know would describe themselves as socially conscious and open-minded. But when the mind is open to one point of view, is it not also closed to others? Although we would all like to pretend we do not possess prejudices, we must even consider our own range of cultural and political influences.

When up-and-coming photographers look at awards, they readily see certain themes repeated. Prize-winning shots are often about various social problems, disease, conflict, and the “negative” sides of life. And, as one builds a reputation in the field, it is only natural to emulate the sorts of topics earning recognition by peers.

Winning awards can certainly be important for career development or landing a better job. Yet awards have nothing to do with our higher calling in photojournalism. We should all ask ourselves the hard questions of truth and authenticity—questions that rarely pose simple answers.

I recommend an annual exercise in authenticity to photo-journalists at any level in their careers. At the end of the calendar year, try making at least a dozen prints of your favorite images of the past twelve months. Look carefully at the range of topics and themes presented in what you deem to be your strongest work. Here are some questions to consider. Just remember that in a subjective profession like photojournalism, our diversity as visual communicators can be our collective strength. We are probably not meant to agree on each of the answers.

In your work, have you consciously sought to capture a balance of topics and types of people?

Do your images go beyond just the literal capturing of too-easy images of social problems?

Do the pictures that do show problems also provide insight and induce a feeling of empathy? And, are they intimate without being exploitive?

Do your photographs portray people’s lives merely on the surface from the outside looking in, or do they communicate the intimate moments of your subjects from the inside looking out?

Is your best work of the year a balanced portrayal that does not ignore important social problems, but also seeks to show solutions and positive happenings, too?

As my mentor Chuck Scott told me only recently as I interviewed him for my book, Photo Portfolio Success, make pictures with “real, meaningful content, not just pretty pictures. They ought to say something important.”

Personally, I do not believe in absolute objectivity but I do believe in fairness. When I traveled to West Africa to do a self-assigned portrait series on torture survivors in Sierra Leone and Liberia, to be honest, I was not seeking to be objective in any way. What had occurred in the civil wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia was as horrific a genocide as had occurred anywhere in the world in the past century. My hope was to photograph portraits of the survivors with dignity and to give a voice to the voiceless by telling personal stories of torture largely ignored in the West.

The goal was true to the precepts of what is commonly known as social documentary photography. Like Riis, Hine, W. Eugene Smith, and so many others before me, I wanted the power of the pictures to move people, and to affect them deeply, hopefully doing my small part to galvanize the movement against the recent use of torture by more than 150 governments, negating any seeming rationale for its use.

My photographs did not seek balance because, when genocide is concerned, there are not two sides of the story. It is horror and nothing else, despite the barbarians who still justify it as a valid information-gathering technique.

Still, when I arrived home after two weeks in the field with achingly dramatic portraits of those who had been tortured, I wondered if I truly had something worth publishing. Or, was I just rationalizing what I term photojournalistic pornography, raw imagery with no real redeeming social value?

Truthfully, I badly wanted to see the photo essay published, but tried to ask myself those hard questions mentioned above. I was not absolutely certain the work truly communicated, rather than exploited.

I decided to telephone Kim Phuc, whose name you may know. She was, as a young girl, the subject of another of the most famous 20th century photographs, a Pulitzer winner of a child running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Nick Ut’s photograph of her is often credited with hastening the war’s end.

Phuc now lives in Toronto and is a happily married mother, directing a human rights foundation bearing her name. After she invited me to send my portrait series for feedback, she convinced me that I must find a way to publish it. Here are her comments:

When I see these pictures they break my heart. I feel the pain and suffering and relate to them from my own experience. I know how these people are feeling, how hurt and how hopeless.

I was also an innocent child surrounded by war. I remember hiding in the temple as we saw the war come to our village. The children ran … I saw the airplane. I saw firebombs raining down; fire was everywhere. My clothes were burning off …

Now I see these people in Africa, even girls and boys, in a situation because of terrible human behavior. I can feel it because I also have suffered. I can see how these people relate to me, because they also come from a different culture and country. But when I read their stories, it helps me to know that they still can have hope.

We cannot change what has happened in the past but can move on for a better life. Each of these people has their own personal story. People suffer. Their lives are destroyed for nothing. We don’t need that. We need love and to help each other. We are all human beings. We must move on and choose the way to find forgiveness.

I cry out to ask people to help each other as much as you can. Do something. Not talk, but action. People have to love and lead with love and compassion.

As Kim Phuc’s life so clearly reminds us, pictures can change the course of history, a high ethical calling indeed. My photo essay was published in the St. Petersburg Times, and in magazines and books, later winning Overseas Press Club, Pictures of the Year, and Robert F. Kennedy awards. The positive reaction to an inherently negative topic helped me to be confident that the story did indeed have social value.

Even more satisfying was the United Nations request to use the work to facilitate contact with the victims as part of its Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal. This was certainly no objective journalistic use of the work, but, instead, a deeply meaningful one to me, and to the victims who sought justice.

Portraits from my photo essay, Surviving Torture, have won many major awards in the photojournalism field, including the Overseas Press Club Award for Feature Photography, and honors from Pictures of the Year International, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, PDN Best of Photography, and The Best of Photojournalism Awards. Kaplan was invited to show the work at the best-known symposium for photojournalism, Visa Pour L’image in Perpignan, France.

As technology continues to change how we capture and disseminate images, and impact our work habits, let us keep in mind the sage words of Bob Gilka, the former Director of Photography at National Geographic. In his career, Gilka has seen the typical photojournalists go from using bulky 4 × 5 inch Speed Graphic cameras, to 35 mm, and now to all-digital image capture. As Bob says, “Bright as he is, man has not developed an electronic successor to creative thinking.”

Technology helps us, but also opens a Pandora’s Box of temptations to cut ethical corners. When citing ethical lapses of judgment, many refer to the infamous “moving of the Great Pyramid” by National Geographic in 1982. When a gorgeous horizontal shot from Egypt did not fit the magazine’s cover format, an unwise designer used digital software to slide the mighty Pyramid a bit to the left, making for a better cover, and a major mistake in ethical judgment. It should be noted that Gilka and his photography staff had nothing to do with the transgression.

In 1994, Time severely darkened the face of murder suspect O. J. Simpson for its cover. Reducing the photo’s color to nearly black and white while lowering contrast to a murky tone made Simpson appear that much more suspect. Readers may not have noticed if not for the fact that rival magazine Newsweek used the same police mug shot without manipulation for its own cover that same week.

In 2003, Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski transmitted dramatic war photographs back from the Iraq War of a British soldier attempting to calm desperate Iraqi civilians. The problem was that a picture editor from a sister newspaper, the Hartford Courant, realized that similar faces in the crowd repeated themselves exactly within the best photo. It was also later determined that, through the misuse of Photoshop software, the soldier’s most dramatic gesture was transposed from one photo onto another. When confronted by his boss, Times director of photography, Colin Crawford, the photographer owned up to his visual lie, saying “fatigue” had gotten the best of him.

Walski was immediately fired. As Crawford told Kenneth Irby of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, “What Brian did is totally unacceptable and he violated our trust with our readers … If our readers can’t count on honesty from us, I don’t know what we have left.”

The photographer later apologized to his co-workers via e-mail:

This was after an extremely long, hot and stressful day but I offer no excuses here. I deeply regret that I have tarnished the reputation of the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper with the highest standards of journalism … I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown in judgment at this time. That will only come in the many sleepless nights that are ahead.

While the Los Angeles Times is a publication that clearly realizes it must be believable, many magazines now intentionally seek out illustrative imagery in their use of photography, rather than literal, narrative photos. With fewer magazines publishing traditional reportage these days, most magazine photographers are self-employed as editorial photographers, rather than strict photojournalists.

“Editorial photography clearly encompasses more than photojournalism,” says Tom Kennedy, another former National Geographic Director of Photography. “The environmental portrait, or celebrity portrait, has grown up as a genre. As a matter of economics, the photographer is asked to create a reality rather than be an observer of the human condition. Working hand in hand, there is a direct collusion between the subject and photographer.”

As publicists and art directors also shape this “new” view of reality, a photographer runs the risk of forgetting how to capture images spontaneously. By creating artificial realities in highly paid commercial work, the photographer should also be sure that it does not bleed away authenticity, Kennedy says.

“I want to see who you really are. Work out of a wellspring of personal commitment,” he advises.

A commitment to authenticity can also extend to a photographer’s decision on when to raise the camera, and when not to. So much in today’s media culture is about representation of truth, rather than truth itself. For example, Reality TV is anything but.

Although several of my good friends are practitioners in the field of public relations, and ethical ones at that, the blurring of news and the world of promotion has allowed those who seek to distort the facts to hide under the cover of calling themselves journalists. Instead, they hawk a clearly biased agenda and the public is none the wiser. Today’s typical television viewer may often have trouble differentiating a slanted version of the news promoted on a program such as The O’Reilly Factor with organizations that really do strive to be fair, rather than purposefully twist the word fair into a manipulative sales slogan.

What does this all have to do with photography? Well, when the photojournalist goes on assignment, agendas at every end of the political spectrum will always look to find novel ways to make news. If a photographer is sent to cover a protest, and arrives to see the protestors calmly sitting on the curb waiting for the media to arrive, raising the camera is only asking for a choreographed show. If the protest is created merely for the sake of media coverage, the photographer’s overly eager presence encourages such stage acting. The only way to know for sure is to get out onto the scene, be observant, and use wise judgment.

Similarly, when the subject of a story first meets the photo-journalist, he or she will often seek to please, perhaps changing a daily routine by doing the sorts of things thought to yield better photos. I was confronted with this issue when doing a project about the diverse lifestyles of American 21-year-olds that later won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. One of my subjects was Brian, a San Francisco prostitute who left a good home in the Washington suburbs; he was rejected after coming out to his parents.

Brian would turn tricks just often enough to get enough money to buy amphetamines; he would then shoot up in local flophouses. He had a likeable personality, so much that the other streetwalkers had nicknamed him, “The Ambassador of Polk Street.” As I documented his tragic life, it became apparent to me that he enjoyed the attention brought by the photographer’s presence, and was eager to be photographed in any situation.

Brian lives on the edge and by the needle. He has no permanent home and supports himself on San Francisco’s infamous Polk Street. When not on the street, he works the bars. He says he takes precautions to prevent AIDS but many fellow prostitutes have contracted the disease.

From the photo essay, Brian: Shooting Drugs and Selling Himself, published as part of John Kaplan’s Pulitzer Prize winning series, 21: Age Twenty-One in America.

After a few months of photographing him as he drifted from San Francisco, to Sonoma County, and then Los Angeles, my photo story was nearly complete. Since I also was the writer for the project and had interviewed him about his self-professed love of speed, I thought that a picture of him shooting up would show the full scale of his tragic reasoning for becoming a prostitute.

He knew that I was interested in capturing that particular situation and cheerfully asked me one afternoon if I wanted to see him shoot up. I reluctantly agreed but only after a deep discussion about his motivations, and even a conversation about photojournalism ethics. Although I had never previously had occasion to talk about ethics at this level with a story subject, I had to be as sure as possible that my presence was not serving to encourage his dangerous behavior. Indeed, if Brian had shot up only for my benefit, I could have never lived with the guilt, had he overdosed.

A discussion of photojournalism ethics and authenticity would also be wise to consider another subjective factor, rarely discussed. What about the ethics of interpersonal relationships within the profession? Social responsibility in photojournalism must extend well beyond the shooting process.

I have known otherwise dedicated photojournalists who care deeply about communicating issues through their images, who, at times, cut ethical corners in their relationships with peers back in the newsroom. What good is living up to the highest standards of truth telling with the camera if a photographer is not also willing to carry through by dealing with editors and co-workers with the same care?

As I tell my students, “you are responsible not only for your own success, but also for the success of the group.” We have a responsibility to photograph passionately, but also to contribute to the shared goals of the photojournalism community. This will help ensure that up-and-coming photographers have the same zeal for ethical, story-telling photography for generations to come. To my mind, those who tell half-truths to promote their own work, or to slyly demean others, without also making an effort to support and encourage the good work of peers, do a disservice to the cooperative spirit of the world of photojournalism.

When we speak of truth, up-and-coming photojournalists may be reminded that, in a free society, we have the right to be there. To get to the truth, we need to fight together for access. Always assume that in most any public place, the First Amendment guarantees this right. Although diplomacy and good sense are important traits of the photojournalist, if you too eagerly look for permission to shoot, your access will often be denied for no good reason.

Remember that it does not matter which side of a particular story you most identify with personally. Seek to tell the truth and ask yourself the soul-searching questions to consider your own biases and to be sure you are not being manipulated.

When it comes to competition, an adrenalin-producing component of the world of journalism, the most important thing to remember is to only compete with yourself. You cannot control what others do or how they shoot. Contests can be good motivators but are inherently subjective. Five different judges will often yield five different winners. Go ahead and enter them but have the fortitude to follow your own personal sense of vision.

Each and every shooter is capable of great work if he is willing to work toward excellence. When shooting, have patience and wait for the moment. Arrive early and stay late. Take the safe shot first and then dare to be innovative. Try to spend enough time with your subjects so they will soon become comfortable with your presence; that is when the real moments will begin to happen.

Seasoned photojournalists understand ethical guidelines and mechanics of making good photographs early in their careers. The ones who succeed over the long term possess these three traits:

  1. They like people.
  2. They have a curiosity about the world.
  3. They are committed to telling stories with integrity and honesty.

Lastly, believe in yourself. Do not be perfect. Be passionate. Great, important, pictures will follow.