Ethics, Dignity and Responsibility in Visual Journalism.
Editors, photojournalists, photographers of social justice and human rights issues, we have a problem.
Photography has long had a symbiotic relationship with the human condition. It has played a crucial role in both documenting and providing a visual understanding of suffering, both near and afar. In the past 72hrs, our attention has focused on work by photojournalist Souvid Datta.
Datta embarked on a 4-year project to document human trafficking in India. As part of that project, he documented the horrific act of a child being raped. The photograph was submitted as part of an entry to an online competition run by LensCulture, endorsed by the Magnum Photo agency. This image of a child rape was used to promote the 2017 Magnum Photography Awards.
Evidence has since emerged that Datta plagiarised the work of Mary Ellen Mark in another image from the same project. Worryingly, the outrage from the photojournalism community is not over the fact that Datta made a deliberate choice to straddle a man, while he sexually assaulted a child, or that he then identified the child in captioning further victimising and stripping what was left of the child’s dignity. It is that his credibility as a photojournalist is being threatened because of a serious accusation of plagiarism.
The actions of Datta, the response from LensCulture and commentary from so many in photojournalism community speaks volumes about our attitudes towards documentation of human dignity. The fact that there’s more outrage at Souvid’s use of Photoshop and plagiarism of Mary Ellen Marks work than there is over his photography of a survivor of child rape should be shocking.
This is not the first infringement on human dignity by a photojournalist. The continued silence of gatekeepers such as Magnum Photos amounting to complicity means it’s likely to be the last.
When this community loses a journalist to conflict, we hear often how you have no business being in the theatre of war if you’ve not done a HEFAT course, you’re not properly insured or protected with body armour.
I want to take that a step further and say that perhaps you have no business covering social justice and/or human right issues if you cannot research, educate and understand your priorities in relation to photographing human dignity.
“if your works not good enough, you’re not reading enough” — T Papageorge
Photographing social justice and human rights issues encroaches on human dignity. The need to respect dignity should be at the forefront of ALL reporting, and especially NOT at the expense of a subject’s dignity and human rights.
Souvid Datta is a Pulitzer Centre Grant winner, a Getty Grant for Editorial Photography winner, a 2015, a PDN Annual nominee, a 2015 Magnum Photos 30 Under 30 Award winner and a participant at the annual Eddie Adams Workshop. Many of the 400 or so people supporting or commenting on his Facebook responders are graduates of esteemed schools of photojournalism. Before the post was removed from Facebook, much of the commentary referred to the lack of education and opportunities for training on ethical approaches to journalism.
It suggests an institutional failure (at publication, agency, photo community and educational levels) to be cognisant of the challenges, and ethical responsibilities that come with coverage of social justice and human rights work.
More must be expected of us at all levels in the photography industry. We all play a critical role in the publics understanding of human rights issues. We must appreciate and fully consider the potential outcomes of our work. Reporting on human rights comes issues with immense responsibility and consequence.
We all desire stories that that inform that provide understanding. We long to understand relationships between people and places, and people and context. We want to be able to relate. We want to be able to put a face to an issue.
As a starting point for visual journalists documenting social justice and human rights issues, please consider:
· How does your work contribute to greater understanding or perpetuate a discourse?
· Can you articulate your understanding about informed consent and rights based approaches to visual documentation of sexual based violence (incl. domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation (FGM/Cutting), dowry related killings, trafficking, sexual violence and many other manifestations of abuse) and/or reporting on children?
· How does your work contribute to a positive understanding of this issue?
· Did you reach out to an advocacy organisation or an NGO working on these issues for research, advice and guidance? If not, why not?
· Do you acknowledge that people have the right and autonomy over their body and how they’re represented in visual media? How does your work inform this?
· How does your work avoid or perpetuate depiction of stereotypes, racism, sexism, classism, shame, stigma or any other comparisons to other groups of people?
If you’re having difficulty answering these questions, please consider consulting with experts in the fields of human rights and/or social justice. Consult with NGO’s, advocacy groups, and established or verified social media groups. Invest in courses, in mentorship, education and training before progressing with your project. Please.
In 2017’s hyper-mediatized and image saturated world, we don’t need more imagery, we need more meaning.
To editors, peers, photo-consultants, agencies, competition judges, festival organisers, grant makers and portfolio reviewers.
Consider taking ownership and responsibility for the culture of validation, recognition, hero-worshiping and trophy hunting that drives photographers like Souvid Datta to create this kind of work.
Be mindful of the pressures and challenges young photographers experience when trying to ‘break-in’ to the fields of photography.
Reward and be encouraging of work that properly informs on social justice and human rights.
Be vocal of work that understands its own content.
Be critical and reject work on social justice and human rights that is ignorant, negative, objectifies, exploits, misrepresents, sensationalises or perpetuates a narrative.
Support work that challenges and contributes positively to human dignity.
Choose function over form. Reward work that is truthful and transparent, over click-bait, likes and pretty pictures.
Promote imagery recognises the agency of women, minority communities, indigenous peoples, children and issues of vulnerability.
To Magnum Photos, VII Photo, NOOR, Panos, World Press Photo, Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Huffington Post, AP, Getty Images, AFP, Reuters etc., please be mindful of the influence you have over practitioners in this industry.
In a climate of ‘post truths’, diminishing political will and global roll back of respect for human rights, be mindful of the challenges of promoting a visual language that better communicates respect of human rights.
Celebrating World Press Freedom Day is not only an opportunity to claim our rights as journalists, but also an opportunity to take responsibility and ownership of ethical standards in photography and journalism.
Jason Tanner is a photographer, educator, human rights advocate & founder of http://www.humanrightsjournalism.org