Stuart Freedman on Ethics & Photojournalism

31st March, 2010

Stuart Freedman talks to the NUJ London Photographers Branch. Image © Jonathan Warren/ 2010
Stuart Freedman talks to the NUJ London Photographers Branch. Image © Jonathan Warren/ 2010

At last nights branch meeting photographer Stuart Freedman gave an excellent talk on ethics & photojournalism. You can read the text that formed the basis for the talk below and the audio from the discussion after the talk is available as well.

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Before I start, I’d like to make it clear that I neither consider myself to be a particularly ‘ethical’ photographer (whatever that is) nor am I trying to preach… this talk was the result of a surprising invitation from Jess (Hurd) after a blog entry that I wrote about Ryszard Kapuscinski called ‘Photoshopping Herodotus’. I don’t pretend to have answers to the conundrum of journalistic ethics anymore than the next photographer but what I am going to talk about comes from my observations about the ethical dimension of a business which I’ve been part of for eighteen or so years and this formed part of a lecture that I gave in Bangladesh in January. The debate about Kapuscinski got me thinking about my role in visual journalism…

While I speak, I’m going to run a set of images that I hope illustrate some of moral and ethical choices that I’ve encountered. I start with a set that I’m going to be working on for this year about the mental health crisis amongst the Delhi underclass. The other material is from various stories and I hope illustrates various ethical dilemmas that I’ve had just before I pressed the shutter.

I leave it to you to decide whether I made the right choices…

To refresh your memories, a new biography of the famous Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was released a couple of weeks ago. It accused him of inventing a good deal of his work. The biographer, Artur Domoslavski, observes that Kapuscinski “consciously built on his status as a legend” and “extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature”.

I have few heroes in photography, but I held people like Kapuscinski, like Chatwin and Lewis et al, as great writers that I could read as much for pleasure as literal accuracy. I don’t read Polish and so the details of Domoslavski’s allegations are a little hard to substantiate but they are not new: that he was a spy, that he was a womaniser. Much of it to me smacks of a jealousy and a pettiness and the disturbing tendency in modern life to have an icon to smash.

We live in a celebrity culture controlled by big business and advertisers that have a financial stake in selling things – people – as commodities. That requires constant banality and revision. Orwell called it Prolefeed.

We live in an increasingly Prolefed visual culture and I am interested in making a new generation of photographers think before they lift a camera to their eye. Whilst not explicitly defending Kapuscinski’s voracity for factual reporting I think that his work has to be seen in context. Obviously no saint, he called what he wrote ‘literary reportage’ and drew on his own hero, Herodotus, whose work was based on a much earlier oral tradition of story telling and interpreting the world from his travels.

Now, I could debate endlessly the authenticity of Kapuscinski’s work but ultimately this is a defence of him and his tradition. As a master storyteller he was entirely aware of what he was doing but had the intellectual rigour to understand the context that he was working within.

It is that wider understanding of ethics and cultural reference that is increasingly missing from a whole generation of photographers.

As you all may be aware, a young photographer, Stepan Rudik, was disqualified from the World Press Photo competition for altering an image. Rudik photoshopped out an offending foot from a frame but he also savagely cropped the picture and converted it to black and white.

To be fair, it isn’t a million miles away from what Eugene Smith did with his Haiti pictures – except perhaps in intention. Smith was working in not a dissimilar way to Kapuscinski – attempting to change the world by showing itself to itself (albeit with some literary license).

Rudak was trying to win a prize, which has somehow (and very sadly) become the defining element of a successful photojournalistic career.

My contention here is not that Rudik was wrong or right (and I honestly feel rather sad for him) but that as photography and journalism stumbles further into the abyss of uncertainty and change, it shows clearly the dilemma that we face:

The industry relies increasingly on (young) freelancers brought up in a PR-soaked, compromised environment armed with digital cameras to cover the world. Cheaply.

Perhaps it’s my age but I see an erosion of professional standards and training. As a young photographer I aspired to those in Magnum, Network, Rapho, etc: the business was difficult to break into and there were identifiable mentors. No longer. It’s a free-for -all.

We’re all journalists now and as far as I can see, there’s an ocean of visual mediocrity masquerading as the best of photojournalism – heavy post-production: a snapshot aesthetic. Easy frames – boring frames. There’s an army of young photographers treating the Developing world as an extended gap year in which to launch their careers into a media that they have no understanding of.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant a generation covering war by treating ‘embedding’ as the norm.

But more – it seems to me that photojournalism itself as a mechanism for storytelling is having an identity crisis.

We can’t go back to the classical formalism of the 19th/early 20th century but we are unsure where to push the documentary ethic.

In the last decade or so we have seen photojournalism turn inward. The lack of traditional outlets (and therefore wider audience) have led to photographers simply engaging with and congratulating each other. We are all heroes striding the world making bold statements and saving humanity. As Steve Mayes commented last year, “Photojournalism (as a format for interpreting the world) is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world”. In many cases we are making a ‘cartoon of suffering’.

Because suffering sells and advances careers.

Two styles have come to dominate photo documentary.

The first, a cold, bastard child of formalism seeks to show people dehumanised – as stationary butterflies under glass. Static, bored, unengaged: an out of context fashion portrait.

The other, which has come to dominate contemporary reportage, shows photographers recording in a sub-Gilles Peres pastiche almost purely abstracted work of shadows and blurs. This technique bears little relationship to what they are photographing. It is “stylistically derivative. There is no attempt to explain and let ‘truth be any kind of prejudice’ (to paraphrase). It is all about the photographer and “never dignifies anyone as a fellow human being”. It also fundamentally fails to understand the context within which Peres worked in Iran.

It seems to me that in all the rush to create a new visual storytelling in the post-newspaper age, many photographers are overtly marketing themselves as ‘brands’: heroes that interpret the world in singular ways. The problem is that few of them actually have a singular worldview and are parroting the same political and visual clichés that they see winning accolades. Alongside this, photography (always the most democratic journalistic medium) has been swamped by an ever-increasing flow of new practitioners that are removed from the back-story of an industry for whom these ethical dilemmas are not new.

To be clear – if we seek to enact change through our work within the Humanist Documentary tradition (and surely that’s the point – otherwise we are just voyeurs), we have to speak a language that the majority of our audience can understand.

I am not suggesting we stop exploring new, creative ways of expression but within that we engage in honesty about ourselves, our stories and the way we cover them.

Part of that is going to mean looking at the stories that we want to make. Not the stories that the magazines may ask us to do – that’s simply illustrating other people’s words – or the ones that we think are fashionable and will win awards.

We do need reportage that shows difficult things, but not one that reduces the people in the frame to symbols. Young journalists have an extraordinary responsibility in the coming years to show truth to a world that has become increasingly blasé about itself.

The marketplace is saturated with photographers touting stories of misery. A journalistic cliché. It’s not that we necessarily need fewer pictures of war and famine and misery but we need more thoughtful ones. Difficult stories need to be told but they seem increasingly ham-fisted in the telling as if that’s what photographers think that they should be doing to the exclusion of anything else.

I think that we, as an established generation of photographers, have some kind of responsibility to make a contribution to our industry – be that through direct education or mentoring.

I know that this branch is thinking about a mentoring scheme and, depending on the final form, this proposal has my backing.

We could do worse than look at the NPPA’s ethical journalism treatise which, although a little earnest, at least creates a benchmark. It states that the primary goal of a photojournalist is the “… faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand”.

We might even try and formulate an ethical framework in this branch… I know that the NUJ has a set of ethics but perhaps we can add something specifically photographic to it: I’m not suggesting a moral minefield here, but something that’s specifically about images.  I am not going to outline in this talk what should be in it but rather in the process of creating such a code we re-engage with why we became photographers as opposed to ‘image monkeys’ for an industry that treats us as disposable and sets us against each other in a financial race to the bottom.

We might start by asserting that at least we value and respect what we do even if those that seek to ‘employ’ us and use our work often do not.

The point seems to me to be that we have to rapidly set ourselves apart from those amateur ‘citizen journalists’ who record events on an i-phone. It may be that in the absence of a professional journalist, their images may run first. But whose images will the public trust? The voracity of what we as professionals produce should be the defining factor that sets us apart from the herd.

Our images should be the trusted ones – analogous to a journalist’s direct quotes.

I asked my students in Bangladesh where they expected to be in their careers in ten years time. I asked them for a second to put aside financial considerations. I asked:

‘Will you have communicated anything about the world? Will you have done what you believed in rather than what you think your clients wanted?’

‘Will you have thought for yourselves?’

Wherever we are working, we will at some point be faced with choices about the kind of images we make – and I want the generation that is shooting now to be at least aware of issues that have an ethical dimension.

So this talk is a plea: I want to see a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution. It should have self knowledge and a human centre but understand the tradition from whence it came.

Ultimately we will be judged not just on our photography but our humanity and approach.

Be close to people. Engage with the world. Be excited by it and want to make it a better place by your work

As Robert Capa said:

Like the people you shoot and let them know it.

7 Responses:

  1. Lewis Stainer says:

    Really interesting discussion, I for one would be very keen in training or shadowing a press photographer.

    NUJ student member

  2. Sion Touhig says:

    Very illuminating and in accord with trends Ive witnessed myself for far too long now.

    My only diversion would be that I dont think the independent photography opportunities you seek can be found in the current photo media distibution infrastructure as it stands. The current infrastructure is either collapsing, or centralising even more, or both.

    It’s no coincidence that some prominent photojournalists have self consciously and publicly turned their back on the magazine and newspaper distribution model.

    Admittedly their ‘solution’ is to move towards an even smaller and elitist gallery audience, so the answer isn’t there either (and arguably makes the problem worse). But it is a symptom of ‘something’ trying to tell us ‘something’.

    And that is in order to survive we must create an independent infrastructure and garner an independent audience, free of middlemen.

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