PDN: It sounds like you believe photographers
need to be transparent with readers about,
for example, who funded their work.
NiNa BermaN: In discussions about
ethics, we spend a lot of time looking at the
photographer. I’d like to spend as much time
looking at editors. In my class, we do intense
critiques on why certain types of photography
are valued by editors. Do these pictures
reinforce or subvert stereotypes, affirm or
question hierarchies and power dynamics? Do
the pictures and captions deprive a place of
its history or give it necessary context?
At least with NGOs, we know their agendas.
But with news organizations, although they
claim neutrality, they do have a worldview
that’s been built in through the culture and
commercial requirements of that publication
over decades and these worldviews prioritize
some stories over others.
Historically major U.S. publications have
published few reports critical of the role
of the U.S. military and its various wars of
aggression throughout the decades. Instead,
we see loads of nearly identical pictures
taken through military embeds. I question the
ethics of that approach and what it has done
to shape the American public’s understanding
about the U.S. military and the War on Terror.
A discussion about ethics and intent
needs to begin at the point where stories and
projects are conceived and assigned, whether
that’s in a newsroom, a foundation’s office or
in the mind of individual photographers.
NiNa BermaN: The market has
fundamentally changed the role of the
photographer as witness and observer.
When [publications had] plenty of money
to send people out on stories, you could
investigate as a journalist. As [that] money
dried up, the connection between the NGO
and photographer or the foundation and the
photographer became much more important.
Not too long ago, American publications
wouldn’t publish work funded by NGOs. That’s
changed. Loads of blogs and even sections of
major publications—The New York Times Op
Docs, The Guardian—[publish work funded
by NGOs and foundations]. Publications
are constantly looking for more and more
content, and so the arrangement thrives.
More and more it seems to me,
photographers are championed and given
accolades for presenting themselves as
advocates and do good-ers. The problem is
that often the power dynamics and intention
of photographers, and rules of collaboration
and consent, are not transparent.
The risk here is that photographers, often
inexperienced, working solo, disconnected from
experienced editors, operating often on their
own dime, or on a grant with no ethical oversight,
are willing to cross ethical lines in order to
make a name for themselves, or do whatever
it takes because they feel that their story is so
crucially important, and the ends justifies the
means. Or they end up doing this mishmash
of work—part journalism and part something
else—yet want the work to live on all platforms,
even though the rules of those platforms vary.
PDN: Do you think the conversation about
ethics or the role of the photographer as
observer has changed?
DaviD GutteNfelDer: The changes that are
happening in the business have been happening
throughout my career….As a lot of the traditional
paths have eroded, journalists coming up maybe
didn’t take courses in law or ethics, didn’t work
for a newsroom, didn’t have the same kinds of
role models. There are people [in newsrooms]
making decisions who don’t think about things
the way we thought about them. If you look at
social media now, there are 700 million people
on Instagram and very few of those are trained
photojournalists, but every day people are
posting photos that are consumed as news.
Those are the negatives. At the same
time things are evolving, and I think I’ve
been open-minded about a more personal
approach to photojournalism, [and] different
conceptual approaches to storytelling. I like
and learn from and look for photojournalists
who tell stories in a new way.
When I worked for newspapers and AP, I
had a strict code of ethics that was enforced
by the people I worked for. That meant I
didn’t even put my political opinions on my
Facebook page [and] we would never have
been able to work in advocacy or partner with
a brand. I’m a lot more open to that, in part
because I am working for myself now and I can
make my own decisions. I worked with an ad
agency on a campaign [to address the stigma]
about veterans’ suicides. I learned I could be
a storyteller and a journalist and not just do it
for a magazine or a newspaper.
tom HuNDley: The collapse of the old media
business model has put pressure on everyone,
but the ethical standards remain the same.
Does everyone adhere to these standards?
Do new arrivals on the media scene fully
understand and embrace these standards?
No and probably not, but that is nothing new
and doesn’t mean the standards have changed.
victor J. Blue: It feels like these days there
is a pressure to loosen those ethical lines.
Folks seem to be getting more forgiving of
the kinds of transgressions that got people
bounced from the practice before, and I think
that’s unfortunate. I think much of the shift
is in the service of esthetics…to either make
the pictures stand out visually or to make the
process of shooting them easier, or novel.
And there’s been a clamor for new
approaches to photography that leave
behind what some see as these “constraints.”
I honestly think there are a few folks who are
willing to sacrifice other people’s credibility
for their own artistic imperatives. We live in a
time where the concept of factual information
is under attack. “Relaxing” or shifting the
rules is a decisive ploy in favor of that attack.
This isn’t abstract and it isn’t moralistic.
If you do serious work, your credibility is
the currency you trade in. Ethical rules
in photojournalism exist to preserve that
credibility. It has real world consequences.
We make stories about tragedy, about upheaval,
about the effects of power and money and
politics on people. Our credibility is what
readers use to assess our fitness as messengers.
It’s irresponsible to undermine that.
PDN: What do you think the causes of those
particular shifting ethical mores are?
victor J. Blue: This isn’t that complicated.
It’s laziness. It’s a shortcut to novelty, to
pictures that “stand out”.... I’d rather make
honest pictures inside the ethical codes of
the discipline. I’d rather look at mediocre
photography than dishonest photography.
None of this is to make an argument for a
documentary photography that never changes.
Much about the old model is outmoded—the
ways in which it has excluded women,
photographers from developing nations and
ethnic and racial minorities in the service of a
dominant narrative. We are in a process now
of opening up to new voices and viewpoints.
This process will only strengthen the profession.
Photojournalism has to change and evolve.
But to remain relevant, it has to hold onto its
claim to the truth, one that adheres to
observed and investigated facts.
“A DISCUSSION ABOUT ETHICS AND INTENT NEEDS TO
BEGIN AT THE POINT WHERE STORIES AND PROJECTS
ARE CONCEIVED AND ASSIGNED, WHETHER THAT’S IN A
NEWSROOM, A FOUNDATION’S OFFICE OR IN THE MIND OF
INDIVIDUAL PHOTOGRAPHERS.“ — NiNa BermaN
Has tHe cHaNGiNG market
affecteD etHical staNDarDs?