A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words: The Ethics of Photography

August 5th, 2011 § 0 comments


After watching the trailer to “The Bang Bang Club,” a movie that I may one day be tempted to watch on DVD but was not tempted to see in theater (another movie about white people in Africa? come on), I was compelled to write about photography. And art. And perspective. Ya know, deep stuff.

The Bang Bang Club” includes the famous story of a journalist, Kevin Carter, who waited to take the “perfect” picture of a dying child and a vulture nearby. He waited for twenty minutes hoping the vulture would spread its wings and won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo. No one knows the fate of the child.

Such a photo and story makes me wonder about the ethics of photojournalism and photography. One, is there a point to which you are not only responsible for your photography, but also for the suffering around you? Second, what perspective is given? Who is photographing and who is being photographed? Who decides what images to capture?

Let’s start with the second set of questions. I think this is one of the most important critiques of photojournalism and photography in general. Take for instance these images:

In each instance, the photographer is making a decision. How to photograph and what to photograph. The image of the Afghan woman came under fire when it was first published on the cover of Time magazine – for the effect on children, what it may imply about the war, the possible exploitation of this woman’s experience and the Western perspective of women in the Middle East. I look at the picture and am aware that she was carefully chosen: young, beautiful and mutilated. Are we shining light on a subject – the violence towards and oppression of women – or feeding into a peculiar fascination for the disturbing, the contrast of beauty and disfigurement or the assumption that we have a right into someone else’s experience?

The second photo reminds me that so many powerful, award-winning photos are those of pain and suffering. So many photos capture moments when grief overwhelms and allows us to witness this grief. But what is our own response to it? And with this picture, I wonder if any such photo would be taken in the United States and printed by newspapers or awarded by foundations. Would we stand to look upon the brutal up-close images of our own dead children? If not, why are we able to look upon the dead children of Haiti?

But it’s not as if these issues don’t arise over the photographs of Americans. The last picture shows individuals in Appalachia. It is clearly showing a particular perspective – unsmiling faces staring directly at the camera. Who decides what to capture among Americans – among the poor, the hurt or the disenfranchised? And who views these photos and believes they are witnessing “real” people and therefore know their experience? (Sociological Images has a great article about this set of Appalachian photos and the debate about them.)

With none of these photos do I want to suggest that I emphatically disagree with their portrayals or the photographer’s decisions, but these are the questions that make me study them and our responses. I believe photojournalism is important – it is important to capture events, to record oppression and violence, to bear witness – but even so, there are other elements at work – power, class, race, gender – that determine what and who is captured. Our own government has previously refused to allow photographs of the caskets of U.S. Soldiers. Obviously, photographs hold power and governments wish to exert control over these images. But it is not only governments who exert control. Photographers have a responsibility to the power of these images – to what they represent and what perspective they give.

As to the first question, of photography and suffering, the lines are so blurred, I don’t know that I have an answer. What, for any of us, is our responsibility to the suffering around us? How do you decide when photographing is not enough?

Photography is an art form, I know, and like every artistic endeavor it will hold a particular perspective. But what is most concerning is that photography captures real people in life in a particular time. It is not a rendition; it is a moment. And yet, we can manipulate that moment. We can determine how that moment is remembered or understood.

What do you think?

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