What is a photographer’s job?

The obvious answer would be to take photographs, right? Duh. However, it is not that simple. There is a relationship between ethics and photography that we cannot ignore.

EthicsMoral principles that govern a persons or groups behaviour

So, what is that relationship?

Imagine photography as the slightly macho boyfriend that flirts a bit too much with other women and makes them uncomfortable on a regular basis and ethics is that clingy girlfriend that’s a little bit annoying and very self righteous.

They’re a dysfunctional couple but, hey, somehow they’re still together and you have a sinking feeling that they always will be.

Photographers, especially photojournalists, face a constant dilemma in the face of misfortune: whether to help the victim or document the moment with their camera.

In other words, should they place higher value on being morally correct and save every life they have potential to or should they prioritise capturing the moment to expose the ugly truth of the world we live in for all to see?

I am a firm believer that photographers have a primary duty to observe, capture and share what normal civilians would not be able to see otherwise, with an underlying responsibility to humanity to be able to step out of role and act accordingly to their moral compass when necessary (by necessary I mean there’s absolutely no other choice).

It is in no way the obligation of a photographer to constantly intervene in every disaster they witness. That is not their role to fill. Their role is simply to produce photographs that expose the atrocities of the world.

Kevin Carter/1993/Sudan

Perhaps the most iconic example of the conflict between ethics and photography is depicted above.

After discovering a girl who became the potential prey for a wild vulture as she rested on her journey to a United Nations feeding centre, Kevin Carter, a photojournalist, set up his equipment to capture the photograph that would win him the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography a year or so later.

Careful to not disturb the bird, he waited until it was close enough to compose the perfect shot before shooing it away and carrying on with his life, offering no additional aid to the girl whose fate is unknown.

In order to help photojournalists decide whether to intervene or document, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) composed a “Code of Ethics,” which is, “intended to promote the highest quality in all forms of visual journalism and to strengthen public confidence in the profession” (NPPA).

Some of these are listed below:

  1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities
  3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups.
  4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
  5. While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
  6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

Kevin Carter’s successes lie in not manipulate his photograph. Instead, it was a realistic shot, non staged and without contributing to the events so any reaction to the photo the audience may have is authentic and true to reality. The public reaction to what this photograph portrays is essentially what won him the most prestigious prize in the photojournalism world.

However, some argue that Carter influenced the photograph by passively and intentionally waiting for the vulture to approach the girl in order to get the best photograph possible.

“The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.”

How can such a criticism be justified when it was his job to capture that photograph so it has maximum impact, provided he did not encourage or influence fate? If it was the type of suffering that needed to be brought to the world’s attention, non-interference prior to the photograph being taken should be morally acceptable. His failure lies in not fulfilling his obligation as a fellow human being to help the girl after taking the shot. He wanted no part in the girl’s fate even though he has fulfilled his vocational task thus directly violating #4 on the list above, showing no compassion for the subject.

The aim of photojournalism and documentary photographers is that of informing society about current issues and that should remain their primary obligation but their humanity should never be completely factored out of the equation and that is something we should discuss on a case by case basis.

The photograph was destined to be controversial from the moment it was composed. After a large amount of media scrutiny, Carter committed suicide two years after receiving the Pulitzer prize. Before succumbing to death via carbon monoxide poisoning, he left a note explaining the suicide: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, of killer executioners.”

His death was not solely due to this specific photo, however, it was definitely a large contributor to the general pain he felt from the things he has seen. It is a burden on the soul to deal with human suffering so intimately for so long and Kevin Carter gave his whole life to photojournalism. He presented reality in the most truthful way, hoping to change the world through increasing society’s awareness of the injustice that exists and therefore despite his mistakes and shortcomings, he should be respected for the work he has produced including this photograph. 

Do we really have the right to judge these photographers for the choices they make in these situations where they have but a moment to do the best they can?

I don’t think so. We were not present in that moment to fully comprehend the pressure and struggle of the photographer so we should not criticise their actions so harshly when the intention was to to do good; otherwise, we are potentially breaking a human as punishment for how they did not manage to fix another.

Broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper, who has witnessed tragedy throughout the world, stated, “Even people who are in the midst of grief, even people who are going to die tomorrow want you to know their names. They want to tell you their stories.”

Photojournalists are the microphones for these voices to the world. They force us to not only look but see and take action.

“The photograph is not my problem… it’s yours.”

What is a photographer’s job?

A photographer’s job is to be that mutual friend of photography and ethics, mediating the conflict by telling him to be more considerate of everyone’s feelings and telling her to relax a bit every so often in order to record the stories of the world.

By telling the stories of people whose voices are otherwise silenced, we ultimately increase the potential for change.