The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

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Moses smashing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments
Gustave Dore, 1865

During busy times when it’s a real effort to carve out the time to sit down and write, one of the things that keeps me going are the discussions and commentaries which often follow a new post. As ever it was very interesting reading the many responses to my recent piece on Steve McCurry in which I attempted to argue as I often have done before that manipulation in the post-processing of photography is much less the problem with photojournalism than is inadequate transparency about every stage of the practice. Also problematic I believe is the rigid adherence to largely outdated ideas about what photojournalism is able to do in the face of profound changes in the social and material organisation of the world, changes which are rendering some of the tenets that were once core axioms of the practice less and less viable. Above all I sought to argue as I have before that binary views of complex things are rarely useful, and that for photojournalism to remain relevant it needs to be more willing to look into the grey zone that lies between the modernist ideas of absolute objectivity from which it sprang, and the strand of post-modern thinking which can sometimes seem intended to negate all values as equally worthless and subjective. Since that post accusations that McCurry also staged many of his images have also emerged in a post by Khitij Nagar (Teju Cole also suggested this might be the case but did so without evidence to support it.) These accusation I think can still be framed in much the same way as the issue with McCurry’s manipulation. Staging is less a problem than how apparent it is that this is taking place. Portraits are always staged, and often appear in photojournalistic contexts, but few would take issue with their ability to provide interesting and useful journalistic insights and most would recognise that a form of contract of understanding exists between viewers and photographers that these images are constructed.

The responses to my original piece on McCurry were broadly positive, although of course quite a few of the positive responses were less about the points I was trying to make than perhaps about people with an axe to grind with McCurry jumping on an excuse which allowed them to do so. That particular ‘scandal’ continues, with sites like Petapixel doing their best to fuel it often without providing the analysis which I would say is needed far more than examples of supposed wrongdoing (but then, they do have GIFs). There were inevitably also quite a few negative responses to my arguments, but these were in their own way interesting, useful and sometimes revealing. Some were nuanced and well argued, but others were shot through with uncritical, oft repeated assumptions, and adherence to the type of black and white moral attitudes which I think is a big part of the problem I was discussing. While much debate and discussion rightly centres on the question of manipulations, I want to take a step back here and examine in a far broader sense what underlines much of what I was arguing before. That is what I see as the problem with photojournalists adhering to strict and pre-fabricated moral codes.

Ask its proponents, let alone practitioners, and it becomes clear that photojournalism is widely conceived of as a basically moral enterprise, which is to say a practice driven at some level by a moral agenda. Its origins and subsequent evolution I would say reflect this, lying partly in the social reform and campaigning photography of late nineteenth and early twentieth century activist photographers like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Alice Seeley-Harris. As I discussed last week, what is often called the golden age of photojournalism occurred at the same time as massive ideological conflicts between democratic states, which considered themselves often to be highly moral and socialist and fascist ones, which either had a very different sense of morality or in some cases regarded it as something to be discarded altogether. Photojournalism perhaps naturally flourished in the former environment, where its role could be as something of a social and moral conscience, and where it was largely unrestricted by the type of authoritarian censorship which regards even compliant photography as a potentially unpredictable challenge. It is perhaps wholly unsurprising that the photo essay was pioneered in the highly permissive media climate of Weimar Germany, and Susie Linfield draws interesting contrasts between the Spanish Civil War photography of Robert Capa and the images of photographers working on the pro-Franco side which also illustrates some of these points.

Despite the growing cynicism towards many of the ideas on which it has been founded, photojournalism is still often seen as possessing a basically moral character, its purpose still believed to be to reveal the world, contribute to public discourse, and in doing so perhaps also contribute to the mitigation or resolution of some of humanity’s problems. To accompany that moral agenda, photojournalism has evolved sets of moral codes, which in some contexts have been more or less informal, at other times more very strictly codified. One such set of moral guidelines which frequently come up for discussion in my writing and in the industry more generally are photojournalistic views on manipulation. These rules or guidelines are many and vary from one organisation to another, but across the industry they more or less correlate with general agreement on most key points. It is a code which stipulates that certain behaviours are inherently unacceptable and that others are broadly acceptable, in other words a moral framework rooted in practical photographic concerns. Digital ‘cloning’ of the type that Steve McCurry was accused of engaging in is widely considered to be unacceptable under any circumstances, whereas post-factum conversion of a colour image to black and white is broadly considered to be an acceptable act, in spite of the dramatic effect this can potentially have on the reading of an image. While in most arenas I would never argue that ends justify means, photographic technique might be an exception.

Saying that, I don’t like binaries or black and white arguments, for the obvious reason that they rarely take account for the complexities of the world, rarely illuminate the things to which they refer, and can often indeed complicate what they intended to make simple. Rigid moral codes are problematic for similar reasons, and can often end up handicapping the very people they are intended to empower. The problem of so strictly adhering to pre-set moral frameworks is they essentially prevent those who adhere to them from making their own decisions about the circumstances they face, resorting instead to a set of rules defined by other people who have not necessarily been faced by the same circumstances and moral quandaries. Mandating strict adherence to preformed moral codes in effect produces a caste of moral juveniles, who can’t trust their own judgement but must look to the approval of a higher power, whether spiritual or professional. It is equally true that rigid moral codes intended to be moral and ethical, can under certain circumstances become the very opposite of this, and can harm the very people they are intended to protect. As Ben Chesterton pointed out in an exchange on Twitter, there are circumstances where you might well argue that for a journalist not to manipulate a photograph would be far more unethical than if they left the image unchanged, for example in a situation where an identity might be revealed and in doing so a subject or source might be exposed to harm.

When I talk to students about ethical standards in documentary photography, I try to make it very clear what these moral codes are from the perspective of industry organisations like World Press Photo, or commercial entities like Reuters, how they have come to exist, and what the consequences can be for flouting them. But what I try to also make clear is that relying on someone else’s code without scrutinising it is a bad idea, and that we all instead need to develop our own sense of what is ethically acceptable and not, our red lines across which we will not pass. These industry codes and frameworks can be a good starting point, but they can’t be an end point because for all the attempts to update them they remain cumbersome and rooted in notions about photography which appear stone aged compared to the way the technology and industry operates today. As many have rightly said before, what use is it characterising ethical post-processing practices in terms of traditional darkroom techniques, when ever more of today’s photojournalists have never even set foot in a darkroom? That these guidelines must be constantly updated goes without saying, but on top of that photographers must adapt them into their own moral codes. Doing this does not mean that a photojournalist will not come up against circumstances where those codes do not function, or where they advise behaviour which is clearly not right. The difference I would say is that where these codes are a photojournalists own they are perhaps in a better position to adjust them, evolving them to function better in responses to experiences in the world. This I would say is far more of an essential part of being a good journalist, and just a good person, than is adhering slavishly, if passionately, to someone else’s preset sense of what is right, and what is not.

4 thoughts on “The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

  1. The purpose of a rigid code of what may or may not be done with a photo for publication in Our Thingy is always as much about protecting and defining the Our Thingy brand as it is about objective truth. It is true that it possible to lie with a crop as easily as with a deletion. It is true that all media channels have built in bias, conscious as well as unconscious.

    It is possible that the people making up these rules may not be fully aware of these truths, but the people implementing them, the editors on the ground as it were, certainly know these two things, and inevitably they will comply with the built in bias using the tools available to them, whatever the Rules allow.

    The Rules therefore do not automatically institute objectivity, and to suppose that they do is absurdity obvious to anyone who thinks about this stuff even a little. All that is left, really, is the protection of The Brand of Our Thingy.

    Rules perform double duty here. On the one hand they tend to eliminate the most embarassing of errors, the sloppy photochops. On the other hand, the loudly proclaimed existence of the Rules wraps the medium in the mantle of truthiness.

    None of which suggests that this outlet or that outlet does not earnestly strive for objectivity. Some of them truly do. But they do this, as you suggest, by striving to simply be Moral, to do the right thing case by case. Rules following hasn’t a thing to do with it.

  2. Nicely written, as always Lewis. I am slightly intimidated by both your knowledge and use of the spoken/written word, but will try to articulate a response here.

    Unless I’m reading this incorrectly, you refer to the terms morals and ethics here interchangeably? I suspect there’s a probably a strong link between moral behaviour and ethical practice.

    You touch on some industry based ethical standards out there, and the idea that photojournalists be guided their own moral compasses – I admire your faith in letting photojournalists define their own moral codes.

    Maybe it’s lack of understanding of photojournalists’ responsibilities to both covenants that lies at the heart of the problem(s). I use the term covenant here, mindful that image-makers are rarely questioned or honest on the process of making (or staging) an image, even less so perhaps than how the images are processed or how that image is used.

    Photojournalists continue to set themselves apart from the rest of the media industry, and rightfully there are moral and ethical expectations that accompany that entitlement. But from some of my own experiences, and discussions with writers and development colleagues, these expectations aren’t being met – particularly in the context of increasing coverage of human vulnerability, where such covenants should be binding on image-makers.

    I suspect the practice of manipulation, evasion of (professional) ethics and absence of moral codes are symptomatic of the desperation of getting work ‘out there’, of immediacy of social media and the dependency of awards/recognition to make money more than just plain ignorance.

    Being ‘a good person or a good journalist’ sadly doesn’t necessarily translate to putting food on the table, whether newbie and ‘old guard’.

    Untangling the conflict of ethical and moral practices is challenging and undoubtedly some ethics need reinventing, but preserving those most basic moral principles of truth and accuracy should be incumbent on every photojournalist, editor and publisher. I don’t think it’s a responsibility that only solely lied with the photographers, there are many editors out there with questionable moral codes.

    As an aside issue, I am in the process of developing a human rights and visual journalism curriculum at the moment, a large part of that teaching is on professional ethical practices. The feedback I’m getting from peers is that whilst there’s a courteous enthusiasm for learning about issues of human rights and ethics, there’s very little real interest in learning how such an understanding could be better used to frame imagery and genres of visualisation and reporting. Cynically perhaps, I suspect it would be a far easier sell, if the education and understanding led to more money, awards and commissioned work, which of course it could!

    There are many good journalists out there but there are also many whose egotistical understanding of their rights trumps their responsibilities to their subjects and their peers.

    Thanks for starting a discussion.

  3. An awful lot of people who are willing to sweep away basic journalistic ethics by noting the possibility of other modes of transgression are making a basic and fundamental mistake. They say that not egregiously photoshopping one’s pictures is not sufficient to confer the pictures with integrity. Well, that’s certainly true.

    But these commentators then make precisely the error that they themselves decry: they omit to mention that even it it’s not *sufficient,* not egregiously photoshopping is still a *necessary* condition for making a photograph with journalistic integrity. Necessary, but not sufficient.

    This is a simple error but astonishingly and sadly pervasive. It does not tend to give one hope for the profession, or what’s left of it.

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