Arkan’s Tigers kill and kick Bosnian Muslim civilians during the first battle for Bosnia in Bijeljina, Bosnia, March 31, 1992. The Serbian paramilitary unit was responsible for killing thousands of people during the Bosnian war, and Arkan was later indicted for war crimes. Photo by Ron Haviv / VII.

7 with VII: Ethics in Photojournalism

VII Photo Agency
Sep 8, 2015 · 10 min read

You can’t have a conversation about photojournalism without discussing ethics, so to get the conversation started, we wanted to hear from you. Last month, we asked Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers to submit questions about ethics in photojournalism for inclusion in our new series 7 with VII. Read on for the 7 answers from VII’s Ron Haviv, Maciek Nabrdalik, Stefano De Luigi, Davide Monteleone, Ashley Gilbertson, Ed Kashi and Arthur Bondar.

1. Is it correct to assume that in photojournalism, you must do almost anything to get “the shot”? I mean like if someone tells me I’m only allowed up to this point or I can’t cross this line, should I listen?

Answered by Ron Haviv

The idea of “doing almost anything” to get the shot is one that is dependent on each and every situation.

One of the skills that every photojournalist must have is the ability to make decisions at a moment’s notice.

That ranges from which scene to photograph, how to photograph it and why you are photographing it.

Alongside all the photographic decisions, you must simultaneously be thinking about the scene, your presence and effect on it, as well as your interaction with your subjects and everyone else that is there. There are going to be times when you judge it’s one step too far to take an image, other times it might be too dangerous to take an image.

There will be times when people in authority whether legitimately or not, will try to stop you from working.

In all these situations you will need to understand what is the end goal. Is this photograph worth it?

No one will ever be able to tell you if this is right or wrong.

The decision will be based on your read of the moment and what you think you should do.

2. How much image editing is allowed in photojournalism and what are the guidelines? If the principle is to represent the reality, how do you see in-camera techniques such as over-/under-exposure, long exposure, multiple exposure, the use of flash and creative white balance, which produce photos that do not match what we see?

Answered by Maciek Nabrdalik

If you choose to be a photojournalist, you have to understand that in the long run, the most valuable thing you have is the public’s trust in documentary images.

I don’t believe there is a camera that accurately records what we see and it’s always been a simple choice for me whether to trust some engineers who made a sensor or the sensitivity and memory of a respected photojournalist who is reporting on the story and presenting his work.

Photojournalism has always taken into account the aesthetic value and I don’t see it as a problem. But aesthetic shouldn’t be the motivation behind the image or a story in this genre.

If you choose to call yourself a photojournalist, you want to put the spotlight on your subject not at yourself, nor your creativity nor your talent. The content of your image is most important. So if it’s for the sake of the content then yes, do whatever is needed to document and tell the story and to let your images stand out and be noticed.

But also be aware of the sensitivity and knowledge of your audience. They don’t need you to point out what to look at. They are well traveled and they can easily verify if you can be trusted.

Once, a respected magazine hired me to photograph a story in Poland. I will always remember the photo editor’s request. He said: “I’ve seen lots of photographs of this place but they all tend to look very dramatic. We don’t want to tell our readers how they should feel about this place.”

I think that’s a really important piece of advice.

If you want to study the current practices I would recommend reading the report by David Campbell, researched for the World Press Photo. It’s called “The Integrity of the Image.”

3. How do you navigate between creating the most compelling images and being sensitive and empathetic to the wants and needs of your vulnerable subjects?

Answered by Stefano De Luigi

I think that although it is a question that many people ask when they begin this work, the answer is enclosed in being a journalist.

What is called the “right distance” … is the distance that the journalist puts between her/himself and the story. It is essential to stay focused.

Empathy, for me, is inherent in the work I do. I think being a photojournalist somehow means to be interested in the lives of others, in all their aspects — dramatic, happy, sad and tragic. The distance which separates us, for example by an operator of a non-governmental organization is one that also allows us to tell the story that we are observing without altering it.

Our fundamental role in the reality we are experiencing is that of witness. And a witness as objective as possible is needed because the story needs to be told. This is the rule to which I refer whenever I am confronted with difficult life experiences.

I do not lose empathy because I’m a human sincerely and intensely interested in what I’m seeing, but I know where my place is, and in this particular context, my place is to be a witness.

I end with a quote from Don McCullin that always accompanies me and helps me when I face delicate moments in my work:

“In front of a scene in which we see a human being overwhelmed sometimes losing his dignity, because is subject of abuse, violence or injustice, nine on ten people turn away their sight, because they feel embarrassed or do not want to embarrass the person, one sees and watch and witness with his presence this injustice, leaving indelible mark that send to all the others to help them to be informed and to help them to reflect on what’s happening, that person is a photojournalist.”

4. As a photojournalist, how do you weigh the desire for working on projects with the economic considerations of day-to-day life? Do you ever find yourself unable to work on a particular story, perhaps of great personal interest, because you might be unable to sell it as relevant to a news organization?

Answered by Davide Monteleone

There is something I always say to my students: “choose a story you are really interested in and don’t forget to embrace this experience.” The world of photography is very competitive nowadays. If you keep following mainstream news and events, you will find yourself surrounded by thousands of colleagues working on the same story. It’s pretty hard to emerge in there if you are just starting in the business. But if you choose your own story that you are really passionate about, not only may you be lucky to have something unique, but you will also find it easier to invest time, energy and money in it. Your first attempt to secure mainstream media placement may be difficult, but there is a lot more possibility today to reach your audience: from your own feed on Instagram to an online gallery, specialized magazine, etc. Moreover, I can guarantee that tenacity, originality, and a good story will ensure you succeed. You will be published and you will make some money. Hey, you will not get rich with this profession anymore. But it is not because of money that you chose it, right? Now, after this true but romantic vision. Let’s get practical: a photographer today needs difference source of income. Editorial sales, corporate work, gallery representation, educational, talks and conference fees, and of course, personal projects. Diversifying will make your living. Nowadays, regardless the well-known crisis of media, we have great freedom to produce stories, to choose the stories we really care about, we can push the boundaries to the point of creating our specific audience, and a bigger audience will come. Independence is the key of this work today. Choose the story you really love, invest some of your money to start if you don’t find a support in advance. Be strong, tenacious and passionate…you will be compensated for your effort. You can bet on this!

5. How do you negotiate consent and respect for your subjects in a moment of crisis?

Answered by Ashley Gilbertson

When I’m shooting I rarely ask permission vocally to shoot a photograph. I often approach people, wearing a camera, and intentionally make eye contact. In this moment, I receive permission to make a photograph or am told I am not welcome. In many cases, especially those that are more open to interpretation, I will sit and chat with the person for a while, introduce myself and explain what I’m up to. After that, the person feels a lot more empowered, and clearer, to say if they’re comfortable being photographed.

6. How do you deal with the problems of myth making in human rights photography, i.e., the competing needs to honestly portray an individual as an individual when NGOs and the like need icons to fundraise? How do you feel about new forms of conceptual documentary photography that are beginning to stress what the medium cannot show us, e.g., Jean-Robert Dantou’s recent project on mental health or all of Taryn Simon’s work? Especially where the former’s work outright erases the individual’s “story” to promote a metanarrative about the societal/normative understanding of mental illness. Is there a utilitarian argument to be made? Or is it also protective of the individuals with mental illness? It certainly feels more honest and less exploitative than even Arbus’s work, let alone that South African guy who went into mental hospitals and took hyper-grainy pictures of the mentally ill.

Answered by Ed Kashi

I don’t see myth making as part of the work I do when I work with NGOs and foundations. I believe it has to do with how you approach your subjects, but most importantly how you work with your clients. I have never found that the organizations I work with in this sphere ask me to do anything to promote mythical characters. I am commissioned or my proposals are accepted based on my ability as a visual storyteller and my skills as a journalist who tells accurate stories. As for new forms of documentary work that are conceptual or rely on techniques, I can appreciate them for their artistic and photography value, but it does raise concerns about the impact it has on both the profession and the public. There is definitely a moment among photojournalists and documentary photographers to be more artistic, in some cases at the expense of quality and honest reporting and documentation. The basic line for me is how you contextualize and represent your work. If you present it as reality or an honest reflection of what’s going on, then that’s a problem that infects other photographers, curators and editors, as well as further eroding the bonds of veracity and believability with our audience. I am quite open-minded about any sort of photography, but when it comes to work that is of a journalistic or documentary nature, there is a basic line we should not cross in how we represent our subjects. With the work of Simon or Dantou, they are expanding our visual landscape and being more than just photographers in their attempt to represent an issue or tell a complex story. I agree with you that these approaches are honest and thought provoking. And quite frankly there is something untoward about “using” people who are compromised or vulnerable to tell our stories, unless we employ a maximum of sensitivity, a purpose to help not exploit, and we treat them with dignity and represent them in a respectful way. This is not easy.

7. What’s your best advice for a photojournalist who wants to work on human rights issues that are steeped in ethical considerations? How do you make sure to represent human rights issues without simplifying complex situations?

Answered by Arthur Bondar / VII Mentor Program

The main questions you should ask yourself — “Why am I going there? What is my reason for staying there? And how can I help people there?” If we are going to cover human rights issues, we should understand that people’s live are at stake. We cannot be just journalists and detach ourselves from what we see. There is the biggest question ever — “Should I take a picture or should I help the person?” If you still have “no” as your personal answer to this question [“should I help this person”], you are the wrong person to cover human rights issues. There are lots of other meaningful themes that we can tell the world through the lens.

We should not just show how humans suffer from different issues like drugs, sex traffic, conflicts, diseases, etc. We have seen thousands of pictures like these. We should follow the story and show the solutions. It is much more important to help people and give them the voice that maybe they have never had before. We will never simplify the complexity of the situation if we go deeper in the story and spend more time with people who need us. Sometimes I put out my camera and volunteer in a refugee camp or a children’s hospital and orphanage. Showing hope and light in the dark tunnel — even for one person out of thousands of photographs — is worth it and what we should do.

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Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

VII Photo Agency

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VII is a collective of 29 visual storytellers dedicated to reporting on issues around the world.



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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