#1: Ethics in Photojournalism

In this year’s World Press Photo competition, Made Nissen’s photograph of two Russian gay men embracing was rewarded as the 2014 Photo of the Year. In last year’s contest, John Stanmeyer’s photograph of African migrants in Djibouti trying to capture a faint cellphone signal was named the top photo of 2013. These photos are not only poignant illustrations of contemporary issues, there are beautifully lit, extremely well composed, and expressive.

2013 Photo

The two photographs are extremely different. When you look at the 2013 photo, it is almost surreal: the colors are pure, the moon is like a spotlight, the shot is totally cinematic. In fact, you could imagine this as the opening scene to a movie, the camera tracking up, and a futuristic (maybe even dubstep) version of Ahhh Zabenya!! fading in as the characters point their phones toward the approaching hovercraft. In contrast, this year’s photo is dimly lit, giving a very intimate view at the closely kept secret of physical intimacy among gay couples in Russia. The moment is quiet: there would be no soundtrack, just the breathes of the two men as they watch dust float in the light.

2014 Photo

This contrast was a deliberate choice by the jurors to slow photojournalism down. In a moment where war photography has pushed the newspaper reading public into emotional fatigue, photographers travel farther, more recklessly looking for the next “Afghan Girl,” and most importantly, professional photographers have to compete with the ubiquity of the smart phone with dazzling cameras for the first look at a story, the prevalence of digital editing in journalism has come to a head.

In fact, 20 percent of the images that reached that round were eliminated by the jury because of significant addition or subtraction to the content of the image, according to the NYT.

What’s interesting to me is that even at such a high level, a huge proportion of professionals would skirt the rules. Editing is not a new issue, so one would have to think that not only did the photographers know that they might be caught but they didn’t care. Michele McNally, a jury chairwoman in the contest said, “many of these photographers clearly didn’t think what they were doing was wrong.” Many of these photographers state using the same editing techniques throughout their careers and being more confused than embarrassed when certain photos are disqualified and others are not.


The conflict and confusion comes from the root that photography is simultaneously described as a document of truth, and a document of art. Photojournalism is the pull and push of “Ethics vs Aesthetics” and “Art vs Journalism” where none of these ideals are concrete themselves. According to Jerry Lodriguss, it is “a fundamental fact that we usually forget… that when we take a picture we do not make a perfectly objective recording of reality. What we make is an interpretation of reality. There is no film or digital camera that perfectly and accurately records nature even on this simple level.”
The mere act of carrying a camera changes the way people position themselves around you. When you bring a camera to your eyes, people smile. Composing a picture is manipulating it. Changing exposures to highlight the structure of someone’s clothing is manipulating ambience. So placing a marker on how far is too far is completely subjective and leads photographers to object that almost everything else presented to the public is editing, filtered, and polished, and that there is nothing inherent about photography that should exempt it. The only reason we cling to these ethics is because the “public” believes in photography more than they should.

Wow – this is extremely long winded. Honestly, by writing about this issue, I have come to understand how nuanced and hard to articulate it is. Yes, that is probably how people feel about ethics in general, but I’ve found that talking about photography and technology at the same time makes it even more complicated. In the next post, I will talk about a number of high profile examples of editing in photojournalism, explaining why these were “breaches” and others may not be. In the third post I hope to discuss more specifically how I’ve learned that social media puts pressure on photojournalism and whether it changes our standards of authenticity.