Ethical Considerations

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Ethical Considerations

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

How do photographers balance accuracy, impartiality, and avoid bias when working on assignment for an organization?

What must be done to protect a photographic subject’s safety, security, and privacy, as well as avoid stigmatization, in difficult or dangerous contexts?

What do human rights organizations need to know and understand in order to encourage and support this?

Impartiality a fallacy?

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about ethics in photojournalism, most aimed at digital manipulation and staging of photos. This has raised questions similar to the first one here about accuracy and impartiality. Firstly, I would say this really needs expanding to more important ethical issues (e.g. representation, subject vs. collaborator, authorship, and who benefits?). How we treat the people we work with and for is rarely discussed (and this goes beyond issues of security and risk). With more photographers working with NGOs due to changes in the media economy, these issues will need addressing. The current methodology of single authorship, charismatic images (that beguile us into taking action), and the unequal power relations between 'subject' and photographer needs reform, or at least alternatives need to be put forward. In a sector where agency and participation are accepted in regard to developing programmatic work, to rely on a methodology that ignores all these things for photo production seems outdated.

I think it is also easy to confuse standards for photojournalism with those for documentary photography. Photography for positive social change does not need to be impartial in the same where that photojournalism wants to be (though ultimately cannot be). What photography for human rights needs to be is honest and nuanced. Organisations that use photos to further an objective are not impartial, and a photographer going into such assignment should realise this. More and more we hear of 'activist photographers' and the tension between photojournalistic standards and their desire to have impact. I think we shouldn't tie ourselves in knots about this, human rights research is accurate and honest, but it has an agenda - so why can't photography too? 

Impartiality a fallacy

Bias is implicit in the work, a humanistic bias. Photographers are usually passionate about their biases or they wouldn’t be doing human rights work.  The impossible pursuit of "objectivity" among journalist has been operationalized as the "balance" norm.  A good example where this has gone awry is in the climate change debate, where the balance norm has given a few outlying scientists funded by the coal industry the same standing as the 99.7% of climate scientists who have documented global warming.   This doens't mean there isn't value in understanding the motivations and justifications of both sides in a conflict. It means that HR practitioners and photographers should make judgements based on their humanistic bias.

Impartiality a fallacy

As photographers we have vision and perspectives that we bring into our work. This is important. Even if there is an agenda for an organisation, it is not always bad. Having said that, we are ideally supposed to be a fly on the wall to show "it is what it is".  Earlier this year, I had a family tragedy. My teenage cousin who was sexually assaulted in her school was victimized and thereafter, committed suicide in Kolkata, India. It became a national issue and was covered in the news. I found myself suddenly on the other side, broken and shocked. We got numerous phone calls and visits from journalists and photographers.  During the candle light memorial for my cousin outside her school, I was asked by a local photographer to removed hair from my face because he couldnt see my teary eyes to get his shot. If a photographer is working for an issue to bring a social change either for an assignment or for himself/herself, it is imperative to be fair and empathetic towards your subjects. If one is not honest and tries to manipulate or stage a photo, how can you expect the sensitivity to reflect in your work?

Empathy & Authenticity

Thank you, Smita, for sharing this story. From my limited experience as a photographer, my impression has always been that the conditions under which you photograph cannot be changed, and you must navigate them with respect. Otherwise, any influence a photographer might have on their surroundings must be exerted after first building some sort of relationship and understanding with their subjects. This, of course, then leads to personal biases which may or may not be productive, but will nevertheless affect your work. Ideally, the human rights topic would speak for itself, without any need for staging, and the photographers' relationships simply grant additional access into the lives of others and the issues at hand. 

When it comes to human rights, is impartiality ever an option? From my experience with post-conflict Belfast, you can document both sides of the story, but when framed in the context of human rights, the audience tends to favor the same side as the photographer and exhibiting organization.

On Bias and Photographic Narrative

I agree with what others above have stated regarding the inherent and not always problematic issue of bias among photographers. As David mentioned, the notion of objectivity is virtually impossible. 

While I believe that photography can serve as a terrific form of advocacy, I don't believe that photographic narratives need be polemical in order to have the intended effect. 

I think that this occasionally appears in insurgency situations where photographers/reporters/researchers have a bias toward the particular insurgents. As we know, counterinsurgency operations are notoriously brutal and, owing to the inherent aspect of combat operations against elements embedded in a civilian population, often yield terrible human rights violations. 

While some may feel a strong affinity for the insurgents (who are almost always the so-called underdog) and a sense of anger over the often far more devastating counterinsurgency measures employed by state actors to suppress them, I believe that photographers are remiss when we choose to omit various actions within this equation. Documenting violence waged by insurgents for which one feels sympathy does not negate the potentially righteous nature of their uprising. It simply allows viewers to understand the basic dimensions of why combat is underway. 

Again, I am an advocate of narrative scope. Insurgencies are premised on an imbalance of military capability and are always preceded by a period of repression and severe injustice presided over by the more powerful side. In order to create a strong, cohesive and honest narrative, the motivations for and grievances of the insurgency must be present in order to offset the simplistic and inaccurate visual impression that two equal sides are engaged in a war. In my view, this is how photographers can express their personal bias on a situation without being polemical, inaccurate and manipulative. 

I realize that such an approach is incredibly time consuming and often beyond the scope of any particular commission. This is why I believe in regionally focused work that allows photographers to continually revisit the same theatres, perhaps on different commissions for different platforms. Only through sustained coverage can we create work that thoroughly addresses human rights abuses and the context in which they occur. 







Couldn't Agree More

Pete seems to have a valuable perspective on working in the kinds of conflict photographers frequently find themselves covering. I would add to his statment that documenting the full scope of the conflict "allows viewers to understand the basic dimenions of why combat is underway," it also allows the viewer to see the full dimension of combat, the true nature of war, in which no one can engage with clean hands regarless the righeouness of the cause.

On Ethics and Bias

I think we all agree that the best human rights images are made by photographers who are passionately engaged, but whose integrity demands that they present the truth as best they can.

On several NGO missions, however, I’ve seen aggrieved individuals pull both photographers and writers away from a scene/area they were documenting and toward an atrocity in another area that they claim was committed by their enemies.  I have also heard reputable accounts of victims’ bodies being transported from place to place in order to insure the most media coverage possible.

Understandably, photographers and writers have to make the best judgment call they can about the truth of what see and record, and in dangerous circumstances, there isn’t much time to make those calls.  I’d be interested in hearing if others have experienced such situations and how they handled them.

On Ethics and Bias, Redux

I'd also like to hear from Diana .

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