The Ethics of Self-assigned Work

In a piece for the Poynter Institute from 2017, Kainaz Amaria talks about the moment she realized she wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer and the underrepresentation of women in photojournalism.

But there’s one line in there, one line that I wish every student and young professional would pay attention to:

It’s that I couldn’t justify asking someone to tell their story if I wasn’t sure I had an outlet to publish in.

Nearly every time there’s a major news event, I start to hear rumblings from students and young professionals across the country – let’s go to (insert location of major news event here), it’ll be great for our portfolios.

And that’s when my stomach churns – it’s the lowest level of humanity that wants to profit off of someone else’s plight in life.

I understand the need to tell stories, the need to build your portfolio, the belief that you need major news events in your book to be considered a “real” photojournalist. But here’s the thing – any decent editor is going to look at your work and ask why you made those images. And if your answer isn’t about helping your community understand, then what you’re showing is not journalism. It’s just photography.

And it’s photography that’s been done at the expense of someone else.

Photojournalism is about informing an audience, it is about advancing the understanding of an event or issue, it is about raising and answering questions about the human condition. It is not about moments of drama or great light or clean backgrounds – that’s photography.

If you get that urge to pile in a car and go somewhere just because there’s news, ask yourself who you’re telling that story to. Without knowing and understanding who you are making images for, you’re not doing journalism.