In Ethics on February 5, 2011 at 2:40 PM
Now in an era of magazines and newspapers that are heavily laden with a content of commercialism and lifestyle… are we also transforming our visual story telling and subjects into mere commodities?

Amongst photographers in Australia and internationally the idea of ‘setting up’ images is a contentious one. The camps are clear, those ‘for’ and those ‘against’.  The question being asked is, “Is it ethical to be setting up photographs that are part of a journalist pursuit?”


Dignity is a rather formal word-perhaps not one we would even apply to ourselves very often. In the dynamic between myself as a photographer and the subject of my photograph, I take it to mean the essence of being human-an equality that is shared by both the photographer and the person in the image. If the photographer understands – an equality that he shares with the subject, however dire the circumstances surrounding the subject, it can be reflected in the image. This is not so much about empathy, or sympathy (which can be impossible in some cases or sentimental in others), but about respect. There is a degree of detachment to respect: the eye of the photographer is able to work and to interpret without projecting emotion onto the subject. Even though the photographer may feel revulsion, shock or pity for the subject, none of these emotions has a place in the image. If the humanity of the subject is appreciated, observed and captured, it will speak to the viewer. Thus the photographer isn’t working to convey his own emotions as somehow more important then the subject. Neither is he working to ‘give’ the subject dignity, which is a patronizing concept in itself. The honesty of the image simply allows the subjects to speak for themselves, and in giving the subject a voice, the photographer gives space to their dignity.

When the photographer fails to respect the integrity of the subject, there arises say, as by example the temptation to move, manipulate, enhance or otherwise alter the subject in their situation in order to serve the interests of the photographer. The photographer may think he is doing the subject a favor by presenting them in a certain way, but this approach is simply dishonest and deprives the subject of their dignity of simply being as they are. We have to understand the difference between being deprived of dignity in the situation and looking undignified in the image. It isn’t always obvious in the image that someone’s dignity has been compromised during the shoot. If a starving person is asked by a photographer to hold out their hand for food, the image will be effective and show desperation and hunger, but the dignity of the person has been abused during the shoot. Even with a dead person-if you move the body to make a better shot-maybe no one will ever know but you have abused the dignity of that person. Respect and dignity are the private contract between photographer and subject at the time of shooting, so in the end it is up to the conscience of the photographer as the whether he carries with him the intention to respect the integrity of the subject.

This distinction between visual dignity and private dignity is very important because in many extreme situations of poverty, disease, war or drug addiction, people appear to have no dignity left at all. You can’t make them look dignified however hard you try. The act of turning a camera on people is inherently invasive. In the real world there is no road map or instruction manual for working in these situations. Best intentions can be compromised because you are not in control of the moment you are recording. Unfolding stories can often be multi-layered, complicated and fast moving but the least you can do is have the intention of not aggravating the situation of the subject.

I have observed where the situation allows, approaching people with respect and building a rapport with them is part of the process that leads to maintaining dignity. On a micro level being aware of the culture and customs of the people you are working with is sound methodology-understanding breeds respect.

Time can be your most precious commodity. The lack of time in the increasingly hectic schedule of news photographers is one of the greatest enemies of excellence and integrity in reportage images. Lack of time can compel photographer’s to construct images because they cannot wait around for them to arise naturally. While the causes of these situations are well understood, the net result is that the photographer pre-conceives the image and executes it accordingly. The subject becomes a mere commodity, and the truth of their situation is overridden by an artificially dictated scenario. This scenario may be essentially harmless, it may even be an accurate representation but it isn’t a true moment, and as visual journalism it is essentially meaningless. It is the equivalent of a journalist writing an interview without actually interviewing the subject. It’s basically dishonest and disrespectful to the subject.

There is a growing culture amongst editors locally and globally to commend photographers for setting up shots that do a great job of illustrating stories. This is especially true when the subject of the story is seen as ‘boring’. Regardless of the debate over ethical issues, this approach actively works against excellence in documentary photography and completely misses the point of the fundamental brilliance of being able to freeze a moment in time with a click of the shutter. No matter how banal a real moment may appear it carries inside it a profound seed precisely because it is original and will never happen in quite the same way. It is the central challenge of the photographer’s art and craft to be able to find that originality and translate it onto film or in a digital file, in a way that is not boring.

To avoid the moment in favor of a constructed moment deprives the photographer of the practice of developing insight. Without insight, a photographer’s work will never lift above the mundane. The practice of ‘setting up’ images discourages the cultivation of insight and instead cultivates the attitude that the subject is a commodity or prop to be used in achieving a pre-conceived result. This in turn works against the realization of the subject’s dignity.

  1. Very good blog Jack….really informative
    Cheers Michael

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