In early 2018, I came across an article about the horrific realities trans women experience at the hands of the U.S. prison system. (Note: in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved in the following interaction, I do not provide a link to the article in this piece.)
While the piece was informative as to the issue at hand (which is woefully mis- and underrepresented in the mainstream media), it was preceded by an unsettling image. In it, four people wearing pink smocks were lined up against a white wall. Three of them obscured their faces with their hands, while two had their backs to the camera.
Perhaps it was just my reading, but it didn’t appear as though the people in the image wanted to be photographed. Curious about the photo, I contacted the publication’s editor and asked if she knew whether it was taken with the subjects’ consent. She answered that the image was from Getty, and that “it’s not atypical for photo subjects to consent to being photographed but faces not be shown (sic).” (I should note here that I have no photojournalistic experience myself.)
I don’t doubt that it is often the case that photojournalistic subjects elect to obscure their identities in photographs they’ve consented to be in. Nonetheless, after speaking with the article’s editor, I still wondered about the image; based on our interaction, I was not left with the impression that she or anyone else who’d participated in getting the piece greenlit had confirmed that the people in the photo had consented to being photographed.
While permission isn’t always easy — or even possible — to obtain in settings that strip people of functional agency (such as, in this case, prison), I wasn’t entirely convinced by my conversation with the editor that forgoing its acquisition was a viable alternative. Put another way, does the fact that some subjects have consented to being photographed in the past negate one’s journalistic responsibility to confirm that requisite permission has been obtained prior to disseminating potentially harmful images in the name of journalism?
Relying on stock photo agencies to meet visual needs is far more economical than hiring photographers. The economically savvy editor, then, is likely not familiar with each photo’s backstory. However, the way in which a photo is contextualized can alter its narrative. For example, each of these images from 2018’s G7 Summit centers on a different world leader, and, thus, tells a different story from the others.
The language editors and journalists use can also shape how readers interpret images. Editors have the ability to alter the meanings of the photographs they choose simply by attaching them to narratives that — regardless of their actual relevance to the images — may influence how audiences interpret them.
However, for editors and authors covering human rights issues — integral to which is the self-determination of the folks being written about — whether the subjects in the photographs selected have consented to having their likenesses captured is need-to-know information.
Often, in attempting to document reality, photographers straddle the lines of ethics. Some journalists have characterized condemnations of exploitative photojournalism as “self-righteous” or “useless.” Take, for example, Richard B. Woodward’s 2014 article on disaster photography in which he asks: “Were the Alabama farmers in the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans helpless and “exploited”?…Is no news better than bad news?”
Interestingly, in a 2005 interview with Fortune, one of the children of the farming families photographed by Evans revealed that he and his family indeed felt exploited by Evans’s presence on their farm, saying he felt Evans made them look “ignorant.” While this singular account might not represent each subject’s feelings about being photographed by Evans, it is certainly a viewpoint worth considering in the discussion about ethical photojournalism.
Ceasing documentation of “disaster” or other human rights crises is not the solution to the problem of maintaining ethics in photojournalism. As Woodward notes, the age of smartphones has ushered in a critical development in documentary photography: no longer do the stories of human rights violations and resistance require $40,000-camera-wielding interlopers to be told. From Black Lives Matter to the ongoing Syrian conflict, folks on the frontlines are documenting, in real-time, their experiences with government-sanctioned resistance.
That folks from within these movements are chronicling their experiences represents a significant shift from a long-standing cultural tradition of upholding colonial ideals in documentary photography: of captor and captured. Despite its continued tradition of capturing folks engaged in political and economic struggle, the craft has a long-standing history of racism.
From its inception, the profile of the documentary photographer was overwhelmingly white and male. The photographer’s goal in capturing colonized folks on camera was often to illustrate their inferiority to people of European descent. Although this goal may not modernly be in vogue, many photographers continue to produce images that disseminate similar, deleterious messages.
Take, for example, the images of “looters” that are proliferated by media outlets after major civil, economic, or political upheavals in the U.S. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, media outlets have repeatedly failed to interrogate the classist and racist connotations of the term “looting” within the context of the large-scale crises within which it is often applied. Ironically, though the folks photographed engaging in “looting” are seldom, if ever, wealthy, they are subsequently packaged by media outlets as opportunistic and thieving. Significantly, many of them are often Black .
While crises such as 2005’s hurricane require transparent media — including photojournalistic — coverage, photographers and editors have a responsibility to capture and distribute images conscientiously. In the case of “looting,” this may mean weighing the reality of our country’s ongoing entanglement with anti-Blackness against the purportedly unbiased tenet editorial discretion.
The harmful effects of documentary photography aren’t limited, however, to the reinforcement of negative stereotypes: in some cases, subjects experience immediate consequences such as termination from their jobs and even criminal prosecution.
For example, in 2014, Edward Crawford was the subject of one of the Ferguson protests’ most emblematic images. Crawford was photographed throwing a burning gas canister and was charged with assault and interfering with a police officer. Though police reported that Crawford died by suicide in 2017, his family, friends, and fellow protesters maintain that he wouldn’t have taken his own life.
Photos taken within the context of traditional warzones can result in similarly dire consequences for their subjects. Action-oriented images — like this one of a woman confronting an Israeli soldier — attract readers due to their high intensity.
Some folks within the Palestinian conflict, such as seventeen-year-old Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi and her family, have willingly stepped into the spotlight by recording their own resistance efforts on their phones. In Tamimi’s case, the documentation of her protest resulted in her being fined and sentenced to eight months in prison.
Others, though perhaps equally committed to Palestinian sovereignty, might not want to be singled out by photojournalistic efforts that could very easily put their livelihoods (or lives) in danger.
Although unintended consequences often result from nonconsensual documentary photography, there are ways to best capture critical cultural and political moments while respecting the self-determination and safety of those whose likenesses are being captured.
If obtaining explicit permission is difficult (as it often is in the event of a crisis), taking time to first consider whether there are questions as to a photo’s subjects’ willingness to being photographed is instructive. If doubt can be cast upon whether a subject is fully in control of having their picture taken and disseminated, erring on the side of caution may be the best option.
When it comes to taking or disseminating protest photos for the sake of showcasing demonstrations, editing tricks might come in handy. For example, blurring an image of a protest crowd enough that no face is recognizable, but not so much that it is unclear that a demonstration is being held, will still more than likely convey the unedited image’s intended effect. In other cases, cropping photos so as to remove protesters and emphasize their signs is a viable option.
On the other hand, reaching out to folks who have (non-professionally) taken their own photos and footage on the frontlines is an option worth considering. After all, connecting with the communities we wish to report on might, in fact, deepen our understandings of the narratives we seek to share with the public.
When it comes to the mission to maintain ethics in photojournalism, the avenues are virtually endless — and since being resourceful is a basic prerequisite for a career in journalism, there is no excuse for editors, photographers, and writers not to uphold them.
Ultimately, professionals in the field of journalism must consider all the arenas in which the subject of obtaining consent is relevant. Only then will we be able to honor the visions of those on the frontlines and the narratives of progress we seek to promote.
Notes: I originally pitched this essay elsewhere, but it wasn’t picked up.
Selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in Media in February 2019.