Category Ethics & Legal

When We Take Away What We’ve Made


Two decades ago, Susan Meiselas published a project that looked at how the visual history of the Kurds had never belonged to them – it was made by outsiders, taken away by those outsiders and then, essentially, banned by outside entities.

Magnum has published an excerpt from the 1997 work and it has given me great pause as I wrestle with the questions Meiselas did – what is our responsibility to the communities we cover, particularly the disenfranchised ones? Do we need a cohort of visual journalists to bring the stories of disparate communities back to them?

I’ve long had concerns about parachute journalism, how we tend to drop in on the latest hot spot, blanket it with coverage for outsiders and then disappear. Where is the exploitation line?

Starry, Starry Fakes

I may have a new hero – Dr. Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist who has been looking at ethical issues in science journals, has turned her eye to some astrophotography published by National Geographic.

One of the great losses of the last 20 years has been the relationships between photo editors and photographers. It used to be that those relationships were cultivated, there were meetings and conversations and extended editing sessions where editors went over work, frame by frame, debriefing the visual journalist who was there in the field. They built up a rapper, they built up trust.

Those days are, for the most part, gone. Photo editors in some places are more akin to photo vacuumers – they are charged with sucking up as many visuals as they can to drive engagement and clicks in the digital realm. Without those relationships, even editors at publications as vaunted as National Geographic are going to get fooled.

Independent journalists, alone with their laptops and without a structured, ethical framework surrounding them, are going to have lapses. With the volume of work to do and the lack of interactions, what else do you expect to happen?

For publishers, they need to take a close look at these situations and ensure that protections are in place. Develop those relationships, get people on the phone, ask direct questions about the work – is this the way the camera saw this? Did you alter the original file? Did you alter the scene? Did you use any special effects? How did you get this access? Is there anything about this image I need to know? Do you understand the consequences of us finding a problem with this image later?

In her Twitter thread looking at lots of images, Dr. Bik asks a simple question: “Where does nature photography end and where does art start?”

I’d replace “nature” with documentary. And if you’re publishing documentary or journalism work, then you better be damned sure it’s real.

Pop Stars and Copyright Theft

Seems like we’ve been down this road before … The National Press Photographers Association and 15 others organizations have sent a letter of protest to Ariana Grande’s management company over a copyright grad that’s inserted into their press coverage agreement.

Photo Editing and Senate Hearings

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Darrel Frost takes a look at how last week’s supplemental Supreme Court hearings were handled visually.

The dilemma is what can you or should you show in one frame when an event went on for more than that 1/250 of a second. My thinking has always been that you look for an image that is both accurate (meaning, it happened) and true (meaning, it represents the overall story). Does that open you up to criticism? Sure, but part of journalism is looking at the larger story and putting the individual elements within context.

The word-side has it much harder – how would you describe the nominee’s testimony? The other witness?

The Story Goes On, the Story Goes Out

There’s a tie between first responders and journalists – they’re the most likely to head towards trouble spots in communities. To be there, to bear witness, to document and explain so others can be informed or prepared, that’s what journalists do.

When storms like Hurricane Florence hit, the best and worst of journalists comes out. The split between the visual and the textual in this News & Observer story by Booke Cain is … stunning.

Cain writes about the efforts of local journalists to keep their communities informed while the image is of a television news crew wandering out into the surf or, optimistically, being surprised by a wave.

Yes, journalists need to be there. No, they should never put themselves or others in danger.

Colorado Journalist Detained by Police for Recording from a Public Place

After stopping to investigate police activity, Susan Greene was told to stop recording because it would be a HIPAA violation. When she refused, she was handcuffed and put in the back seat of a police car and then released.

Some things to unpack here … Greene was in a public place as were the police so there is no expectation of privacy there. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act only applies to medical professionals. And by detaining and then releasing her, they prevented her from doing her job. Even with no charges being filed, this was effectively a case of prior restraint by a government official.

What’s Newsworthy?

The visual coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has fascinated me for years. Stricken with polio, he was mostly unable to walk without either physical or mechanical assistance, yet the journalists of the time almost never recorded that fact.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest ethical discussions on how we cover those in power – what matters, what doesn’t and what’s the effect of that coverage.

Polio, as a physical ailment, had no impact on his intellectual abilities and, therefore, no impact on his ability to do the work required of being president. But how would the general public have responded? Would they have been able to understand that the damage to his legs had no impact on his ability to lead?

The decision not to film or photograph was, I think, an ethical choice. Journalists collect massive amounts of information, assess it, analyze it, vet it, contextualize it and then publish it. Part of that assessment is understanding what the reaction to it will be, that understanding of your audience is a critical part of the process.

This comes up as nearly 90 minutes of unseen silent films of President Roosevelt are about to be released. Michael Ruane of the Washington Post touches on the issue in the video there, worth a watch.

Food for Thought

World Press Photo has given control of their Instagram account to Alessio Mamo. Mamo won an award in the last contest and the image he posted is from a new project looking at poverty and food issues in India. This was sent to me by Katy Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics and it raised my eyebrows significantly.

First, I’m not sure this falls into the realm of journalism (or at least our American vision of journalism). This segment of the description was really troubling to me:

These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.

That last phrase – “I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table” – that’s not journalism. That’s staging, that’s giving direction. Do we pose people in portraits? Yes, we do, to help them tell their story. But this is going a step further – it is not an image about these particular people, they are being used as props.

The comments, both on the World Press Photo feed and Mamo’s original posting, are telling. As of my writing, the post has more than 15,000 likes on Instagram but the written comments use phrases like shameful, horribly offensive, repulsive, exploitive and “completely devoid of any sort of sensitivity or understanding.”

That dichotomy – 15,000 likes and highly critical comments – are one place to start a discussion on the value of social media. Are all those likes because people like the image/execution/idea? Or because it was posted on the World Press Photo feed? Do they like what several commenters referred to as “poverty porn?”

There’s also the question of how we balance the ability to illustrate a story and the need to document an issue. Is this image being used to tell the story of the people in it? Or are they being used as an example of a larger issue? Are they aware of how they are being portrayed?

I have many thoughts on the purpose of visual journalism and many ways of discussing them, but let’s use this version:

  • Journalism is specific, journalism is not generic.
  • Journalism is precise, journalism is not vague.
  • Journalism illuminates, journalism does not decorate.

Is this specific? That’s unknown as there’s no additional information about these specific children. By hiding their faces, they become generic props like the fake food displayed in front of them.

Is it precise? No, as there’s no sense of why (or even if) these two struggle with food insecurity.

Does it illuminate? No, it’s a decorative image – propped, staged and controlled.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to accurately and truthfully portray the lives of those we document. This image does not do that, it feeds stereotypes not the hungry.

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on

Sexual Harassment in Photojournalism

Kristen Chick has published an extensive report at the Columbia Journalism Review about sexual harassment in the photojournalism industry.

If you are reading this, you need to go read that. It is not optional.

There is a lot of information to process there. As a male who has been in the industry for almost three decades, I want to be able to say this is a selective view of a small segment of the industry.

Which may be true but it does not matter. Also, I don’t think that it is true.

Harassment comes in big scenes and small scenes. I’ve had colleagues report how they were treated by people they were covering. I’ve had students report that older, male organizers of conferences had invited them to their rooms for after-parties only to find they were the only ones invited and there were pornographic films being shown on the television. I’ve had students report that professionals looked at spokes models in leather pants and turned to the student to say they’d look good in those.

And I use “report” as we do in journalism – when we report something to the public it is because it has been verified and found to be true.

My program here at the University of Georgia is predominantly women. My industry is predominantly male. It is my responsibility to try to balance those two.

We run programs for students throughout the year, including our two signature workshops – Photojournalism at the Fair and the Woodall Weekend Workshop. I have a zero-tolerance policy – I’m not accepting any transgressions and I’m not taking any chances. You don’t get invited unless you’ve been vetted, which means I’ve asked specific questions about you. And if it is reported that you were inappropriate, you are not coming back.

You make my kids feel uncomfortable or othered or less-than and you are done.

And I’m willing to tell my colleagues, near and far, to cut off your access.

Know Your Sources, Deeply

Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel and Merritt Enright at NBC News broke a story this week about the First Lady receiving royalty payments that may have come from news outlets … without them knowing it.

Many of the photographs in the Getty Images archive are from a photographer who seems to have an interesting relationship with the Trump family. Regine Mahaux’s images appear to have required model royalties associated with them, meaning that news organizations (of which NBC News found several) were paying the First Lady when they published images of her. They are also reporting that the images have restrictions to be only used for positive news stories.

News organizations have a responsibility to understand where all of the information they publish comes from, which means they may have to investigate all of the agencies from which they draw images.

Of course, having staff photojournalists and your own archive can mitigate this problem – and I do mean mitigate, not eliminate. No organization will ever be able to create and control every image they need to publish.

(Thanks to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for the lead on this.)