Photojournalism Ethics

Two stories in the news today relate to photographic ethics. The first seems clear-cut. AP have issued a statement AP severs ties with photographer who altered work about their decision to break all ties with freelance photographer Narciso Contreras who apparently owned up to them that he had removed the video camera of another photographer he was working with from the corner of a dramatic picture of a Syrian fighter he had sent them last September.

Mexican freelance Contreras “was one of five AP journalists who shared in the Pulitzer awarded last April for breaking news photography, cited by judges for “producing memorable images under extreme hazard” and saluted by AP’s VP and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon for their bravery and skill. AP say they have examined all the 494 pictures by him that they have handled and this is the only one that has been altered, but they are still removing all of his work from their publicly available archive.

In their release, they quote Contreras as stating: “I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera … I feel ashamed about that” and he goes on to say that he was working under extreme pressure, and that this was the only time he had done such a thing.

Although one can sympathise with Contreras, I’ve often given my opinion that integrity is paramount in photojournalism and news reporting. Without it our work has no credibility.  It is harsh treatment for what appears to be a single slip, but inevitable for AP to take such decisive action. Though I do feel that people who say that the AP should hand back that Pulitzer are just being silly.

Other cameras getting in the way and messing up our best pictures is an everyday hazard for those of us who photograph news and events. Sometimes we can crop them out, other times burn down to make them less obtrusive, both acceptable, but cloning them out clearly breaks the link between reality and image. The particular camera here seems to have been simply lying on the ground, but often it is the cameras of other photographers using them who get in our way – and our cameras may well be in their pictures too. But still photographers usually try to cooperate with others in taking photographs to avoid such clashes as far as possible. (Videographers are often more of a problem because of their different requirements – which I realise, but some working for particular major media outlets do appear to feel they have a divine right to get in everyone’s way and have sometimes to be politely reminded this is not the case !)

Politica y Sociedad in The First Photo Won a Prize; The Second Made a Controversy Explode look at a pair of photographs taken at the same time of a 14 year old Haitian girl killed by the police for looting a store of two plastic chairs and a framed picture. One, a superbly composed but highly worked on image by photographer Paul Hansen won the Swedish Picture of the Year Award 2011.

The other is far more prosaic, taken from one side gives a much clearer view of the location, and shows the dead girl with a group of photographers in a line taking her picture. It isn’t a great picture and unlikely to win awards, but one that provokes thought.

Hansen’s is almost an abstraction from the event, perhaps more like Andrew Wyeth might have painted the scene than a photograph. The second photograph is by Nathan Weber, and on his web site you can watch his video about the death of Fabienne, which includes several striking and rather more realistic images of the dead girl, as well as putting the images into their context.

Politica y Sociedad comment: “The debate that is arising in Sweden revolves around the question, “Would Sweden have donated less for disaster relief if that photo had not been published?” Or “Would fewer resources and professionals have been sent?”

But I think there should also be a debate about the aestheticisation of reality in the post-production of images like Hansen’s. To me it loses authenticity by the excessive and over-dramatic interpretation, something which as has been pointed out, seems to make everything like a film poster. Let’s see things as life.

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