Photographer Interviews

Photojournalists on Ethics and Their Responsibilities

July 10, 2017

© Victor J. Blue

Victor J. Blue photographed an Afghan National Army soldier in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan in 2015. When working closely with subjects, Blue usually has a “Define the Relationship” talk with them, to make sure they understand why he’s there and what they can—and can’t—expect from him.

Photojournalism has always been built on trust—between photographers and their subjects, and between photographers and their audiences. But there are natural tensions between the interests of photographers, subjects, readers and editors—and the non-governmental organizations, grant makers and advocacy organizations who now support most of the long-form photographic storytelling we see. Some photographers want their photos to effect change, while others strive to remain neutral. But all have biases that influence who and what they choose to photograph, and the how and why of practically every picture they take and select for distribution.

How do photographers navigate those choices in practice? We interviewed a few seasoned photographers, including Nina Berman, David Guttenfelder, Victor J. Blue, Sim Chi Yin and Ed Kashi, to find out how they do it. For some outside perspective, we also interviewed Tom Hundley, senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which provides financial support to photojournalists reporting on pressing social issues. Here are excerpts of their responses. We have categorized the responses by topic, but we also include questions that elicited the responses. The full interviews are available here.

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer and an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A member of NOOR, she has produced photos and stills published by TIME, Newsweek, Geo and The Sunday Times Magazine. She has published two books: Purple Hearts and Homeland.

Victor J. Blue is a photojournalist who has completed assignments in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Afghanistan and Iraq. A former staff photographer at The Record in Stockton, California, his photos have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, TIME, Newsweek and on The Discovery Channel.

David Guttenfelder is a contributor to National Geographic. While working for the Associated Press, he was based in Nairobi, Abidjan, New Delhi and Tokyo and, in 2011, helped open the AP bureau in Pyongyang. His advertising photography has won honors from the Cannes Lion Festival, D&AD and the AICP show.

Tom Hundley worked for two decades as foreign correspondent for the  Chicago Tribune before he joined the non-profit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, where he is now senior editor.


Ed Kashi is a photographer and filmmaker whose clients include National Geographic, Geo, Human Rights Watch, TIME and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A member of VII Photo, he is co-founder of Talking Eyes Media, a non-profit that has produced films, exhibitions, books and multimedia pieces on social issues.

Sim Chi Yin’s photos and multimedia have been published by TIME, The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde and The New Yorker, and she has also shot for NGO clients. She began her journalism career as a foreign correspondent for The Strait Times in Singapore, was a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellow and is a member of VII Photo, currently based in Beijing.

What do photographers owe to their subjects?

PDN: When you’re covering a subject, or seeking access, what kind of relationship do you try to establish? What do you tell them about how the photos might be used? Do you offer anything in return?
Victor J. Blue: I try to establish a relationship of transparency and of trust. I am very honest about why I am there and what I am doing, and what will happen with the pictures: They will be published in a big newspaper or magazine, they will be on the internet, they will have your name on them. Most stories I do at some point require what I call the DTR—the “Define the Relationship” talk. I try to be upfront and really direct about it. I’ve had the talk in living rooms, in prisons, on farms, on combat outposts, in all kinds of contexts. It of course changes each time, but the outlines are about the same:

I don’t want anyone to get hurt today, and I don’t want anything bad to happen. But I came here because bad things happen/have happened here, or could happen here, and I want to tell the world about that and how it affects you. Now, I can’t guarantee you that letting me come here will solve it, or help you out personally. But if you let me hang out, at least people will know what you are going through. And if you planned on doing something terrible today, you are making a big mistake because I am going to tell everyone about it….I can’t guarantee that you will like the way you look in the pictures, or what you see in them. But I promise that you’ll never see a photo I take or read a word that I write and be able to say, “That’s not how it happened. That’s not true.”

© Sim Chi Yin/VII

He Quangui, a former gold miner suffering from silicosis, with his wife, in the hospital where Sim Chi Yin helped him get treatment. © Sim Chi Yin/VII

Sim Chi Yin: Ethics is something I feel is important to talk about especially in relatively closed societies where news is sometimes propaganda….In the case of the Rat Tribe project [about people living in basements in Beijing], I said, “I want to show that you’re regular people with aspirations for upward mobility, and sometimes my work is picked up by magazines and broadcasters.” Some people said, “I’m ok with this coming out in English outside of China,” but I had people who asked me to remove their picture when it was published in Chinese in China. So I did. You have to listen to what subjects ask of you, and act on their requests.

PDN: When subjects ask you implicitly or explicitly “What’s it in it for me?” how do you respond to that?
Ed Kashi: I’ve increasingly had situations, especially with refugees and people in poverty, [in which people] ask why they should help me when nothing changes for them. That is the most challenging moment. But when it’s asked explicitly, I am always very clear who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what I want to achieve. Most of the time my goal is to benefit them in some way, either by telling their story, giving them voice, or actually to advocate to raise awareness or foment solutions for their plight, or the issue they are facing.

PDN: What do you teach your students or the photographers you mentor [about photographer/subject relationships]?
Nina Berman: For me, what’s constant is: You do not do your subjects harm. You do not place your subjects at risk. When working with vulnerable populations, or when telling very personal stories, you get full consent and explain your intention and plans for publication/exhibition. You do not engage in transactional journalism, which is: “You let me shoot this, and I’ll give you this.” And you make sure your captions are correct and complete.

I teach students: Don’t ask someone to do something for you and then pass it off as a found moment. And if you’re making a portrait, it needs to be clear to the viewer that it’s a constructed image and a collaboration between you and the subject. And the [portrait subjects] better be damned sure they know what they’re posing for.

Ed Kashi: [While mentoring others,] I speak about retaining the respect and dignity for our subjects, the importance of understanding how we impact their lives and in certain situations how we must behave. As time goes on, experience has shown me that we cannot act like vultures or opportunistic voyeurs. We must understand what we are seeing, who the characters are, how their lives are being impacted by the issues they face and also our presence. I have found that the more conscious I am about these factors, the better my experience is.

© Ed Kashi/VII

Ed Kashi photographed a father and son in a Sri Lankan village who both suffer from Chronic Kidney Disease of nontraditional cause, most likely the result of toxins in chemicals used to farm rice. “Working with subjects is a collaboration,” says Kashi. “Our subjects give us permission” to witness their lives. In return, “we have ethical and moral boundaries to follow as journalists, and while they can sometimes be gray lines we must never lose sight of them.” © Ed Kashi/VII

Should photojournalists intervene on behalf of subjects—or not?

PDN: What kinds of things have subjects asked for, and how do you handle those requests?
Ed Kashi: Over the years I’ve been asked for many things by my subjects, from marriage to a passport or visa to America, for money, food, clothing, transportation, friendship; the list is endless. The only time I ever give anything, and it’s happened ten to 20 times in close to 30 years of doing this work, is to give food, transportation and sometimes companionship.

I base these decisions on the needs of my subject and the needs of my story. I find that to stay completely uninvolved in their affairs is both insensitive, given they are making accommodations in their lives for my needs, and also foolish in terms of making a stronger bond of trust and cooperation. Working with subjects is a collaboration, no matter what people say. Our subjects give us permission, whether in an encounter that lasts minutes or years. It’s disingenuous to think otherwise. Yet we have ethical and moral boundaries to follow as journalists, and while they can sometimes be gray lines we must never lose sight of them. Subjects have become lifelong friends or acquaintances, so to treat everyone in a cold, clinical manner is not my approach.

Victor J. Blue: I try to be clear and transparent that I’m not there to hand out presents, but [I’m] also easy going. I’ll buy lunch sometimes, but I’m not going to buy a load of groceries. I might give someone a quick lift, but I’m not going to organize to take them to appointments. I won’t buy someone drugs and I won’t bail them out of jail. I think the ethical approach is to do everything [possible] not to intervene in the story in a way that makes you an actor in it. It doesn’t make sense for us to act as angels, anointing subjects with some kind of pathway out of their situation. That’s the worst of the “white savior” mentality.

Sometimes folks grow very, very close to their subjects and these questions become more difficult to navigate. But getting back to the “Define the Relationship” talk, if you set those expectations up front, it’s much easier to navigate. I think people get that you are there to witness their struggle. They know you can’t share it, and we shouldn’t act like we do. It doesn’t make you a heartless bastard, it makes you a professional. I try my best not to intervene unless it’s a crisis, a life or death situation. Sometimes you have to pause in your role as a journalist and [be] a human being. I’ve given [emergency] medical treatment in the field. I don’t think it’s that complicated… If there’s not someone [more competent to do that], I drop my camera, do what needs to be done, and then resume.

What do photographers owe to their audiences?

PDN: There is now a lot of mistrust and suspicion of bias in the media. Is that an argument for strict rules about not intervening, or keeping a distance from a subject?
David Guttenfelder: I guess I have enough experience to know when something is going to impact my independence or undermine the credibility of the work, and then I won’t do it….I’m trying to be honest and trying to come to an honest conclusion and trying to be transparent….Photography is such an enormous responsibility and such a magical thing, if you lie about it and deceive people, it’s not only wrong, but it undermines the power of everything that’s been done by people who are doing it right.

How important is it to be neutral and “objective”?

PDN: Do you consider yourself a neutral observer when you’re working on a story? Is your goal “objectivity”?
Ed Kashi: Objectivity is important as a way to maintain an open mind and heart, listen clearly and not believe some predetermined narrative or opinion. Yet I find so many issues in the world, and America included, where there is an injustice and finding a way to show it with clarity and honesty is a guiding principle. Journalism can be a force for good, and visual reporting and storytelling can make a difference in people’s lives. The problem with the term “objectivity” is when it means you cannot be passionate about what you observe and take a side, so your work can have greater impact. If objectivity is to always show both sides and be neutral, then that feels like a neutered approach to reporting.

Victor J. Blue: [I’m] always independent, never neutral. I think [James] Nachtwey said that. I try to be on the side of whoever is getting shot at, whoever is getting run out of town, whoever is getting screwed by forces out of their control…I don’t work at the behest of an entrenched interest, of a predetermined outcome, or an unquestioned orthodoxy. That can sound easy: “Yeah, of course I’m not a propagandist for a government or a shill for a corporation.” But it can be difficult, especially to hold in check your own political biases and leave those aside in your investigation of the facts. I think sometimes photographers use the medium of photojournalism as a tool to advance their political beliefs. And I guess there is some place for that kind of advocacy work—but it belongs somewhere else, not in journalism.

I understand that photographers want to “create change” with their pictures, but what does that mean? That’s usually shorthand for advancing left-leaning policy goals. Someone with different politics could just as easily use that justification. I don’t want to create change. I just want people to be unable to say they didn’t know. If you see my story and you aren’t moved an inch—you vote the same, spend your money the same, treat others in your community the same—that’s fine. But you can’t say you didn’t know.

Of course sometimes you have to cover stories from the side of the aggressor, because of access. In those circumstances, as always, you are striving not to celebrate and not to condemn, but to understand, and help readers understand, the dynamic as you see it. And I am definitely not a protagonist in the narratives I create or the stories I tell. I think if you’re moving things around or manipulating situations to make more interesting pictures, you have crossed a line into being an actor in that scenario.

© AP images/David Guttenfelder/National Geographic Creative

David Guttenfelder photographed in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2013. In his many trips there, his minders would try to discourage him from taking pictures of things that looked “old or broken,” he says. He told them, “That’s the reality of life here. People all over the world struggle and they can put themselves in those photos.” © AP images/David Guttenfelder/National Geographic Creative

What are the implications for journalistic independence of military embeds, government minders, and NGO partnerships?

David Guttenfelder: I worked in North Korea, and made 40 trips over more than ten years. I worked with a minder. I wasn’t censored, and didn’t censor myself. But…it was a conversation day to day, and it evolved a lot over the years. The arguments were often: “Why did you show something that looks old or broken?” I’d say, “That’s the reality of life here. People all over the world struggle and are photographed in that way. This is reality, and it allows for understanding and creates connections.”

[About embeds] I would say you live with people and you come to understand them and you’re inevitably going to have some insight or empathy, and that’s good. We are so ignorant. I want a photographer to get intimate and close enough with their subject, especially someone we otherwise think of as the other or an enemy. My feeling is that if a photographer can go in with an ethical center, knowing what their responsibility is, then we should do it. The alternative is to close the door.

PDN: It is now often impossible to gain access to many stories without military escort, or material support from an NGO. What do you think photographers and publications should do to improve their transparency about them?
Tom Hundley: Military embeds, friendly NGOs, authoritarian governments, activists—these situations can obstruct the reporting—or facilitate it. Professional journalists can generally work within the confines of these situations without compromising their work. Sometimes it is important to provide additional context. For example, during the Kosovo War, the Belgrade government was very efficient in preserving the scene of civilian casualties and delivering foreign photographers to the scene. The intent was clearly to cast NATO in a poor light. The casualties were real, the images compelling, but the context was also instructive and necessary. An honest and competent journalist knows when his work has been truly compromised, and does not offer that work for publication.

Victor J. Blue: This is a big problem and one that we as professionals have to navigate with a bit of grace. It’s tricky, and we have to be honest with ourselves: Am I able to tell a true story here, or is this relationship getting in the way of that? And if so, we have to move on.

It worries me that NGOs are often players in these big events we cover. I’ve had great experiences working with NGOs that respected my role and didn’t interfere. And I’ve had the experience of being obstructed by them. I think we need to be a little more adversarial in dealing with NGOs and less likely to play on their teams.

PDN: It sounds like you believe photographers need to be transparent with readers about, for example, who funded their work.
Nina Berman: In discussions about ethics, we spend a lot of time looking at the photographer. I’d like to spend as much time looking at editors. In my class, we do intense critiques on why certain types of photography are valued by editors. Do these pictures reinforce or subvert stereotypes, affirm or question hierarchies and power dynamics? Do the pictures and captions deprive a place of its history or give it necessary context?

At least with NGOs, we know their agendas. But with news organizations, although they claim neutrality, they do have a worldview that’s been built in through the culture and commercial requirements of that publication over decades and these worldviews prioritize some stories over others.

Historically major U.S. publications have published few reports critical of the role of the U.S. military and its various wars of aggression throughout the decades. Instead, we see loads of nearly identical pictures taken through military embeds. I question the ethics of that approach and what it has done to shape the American public’s understanding about the U.S. military and the War on Terror.

A discussion about ethics and intent needs to begin at the point where stories and projects are conceived and assigned, whether that’s in a newsroom, a foundation’s office or in the mind of individual photographers.

© Victor J. Blue

Victor J. Blue photographed members of the Afghan Special Forces and Afghan National Army fighting against Taliban militants in Kunduz province in Afghanistan in 2015. Blue has made many trips to the country, often embedding with military forces. © Victor J. Blue

Has the changing market affected ethical standards?

Nina Berman: The market has fundamentally changed the role of the photographer as witness and observer. When [publications had] plenty of money to send people out on stories, you could investigate as a journalist. As [that] money dried up, the connection between the NGO and photographer or the foundation and the photographer became much more important.

Not too long ago, American publications wouldn’t publish work funded by NGOs. That’s changed. Loads of blogs and even sections of major publications—The New York Times Op Docs, The Guardian—[publish work funded by NGOs and foundations]. Publications are constantly looking for more and more content, and so the arrangement thrives.

More and more it seems to me, photographers are championed and given accolades for presenting themselves as advocates and do good-ers. The problem is that often the power dynamics and intention of photographers, and rules of collaboration and consent, are not transparent.

The risk here is that photographers, often inexperienced, working solo, disconnected from experienced editors, operating often on their own dime, or on a grant with no ethical oversight, are willing to cross ethical lines in order to make a name for themselves, or do whatever it takes because they feel that their story is so crucially important, and the ends justifies the means. Or they end up doing this mishmash of work—part journalism and part something else—yet want the work to live on all platforms, even though the rules of those platforms vary.

PDN: Do you think the conversation about ethics or the role of the photographer as observer has changed?
David Guttenfelder: The changes that are happening in the business have been happening throughout my career….As a lot of the traditional paths have eroded, journalists coming up maybe didn’t take courses in law or ethics, didn’t work for a newsroom, didn’t have the same kinds of role models. There are people [in newsrooms] making decisions who don’t think about things the way we thought about them. If you look at social media now, there are 700 million people on Instagram and very few of those are trained photojournalists, but every day people are posting photos that are consumed as news.

Those are the negatives. At the same time things are evolving, and I think I’ve been open-minded about a more personal approach to photojournalism, [and] different conceptual approaches to storytelling. I like and learn from and look for photojournalists who tell stories in a new way.

When I worked for newspapers and AP, I had a strict code of ethics that was enforced by the people I worked for. That meant I didn’t even put my political opinions on my Facebook page [and] we would never have been able to work in advocacy or partner with a brand. I’m a lot more open to that, in part because I am working for myself now and I can make my own decisions. I worked with an ad agency on a campaign [to address the stigma] about veterans’ suicides. I learned I could be a storyteller and a journalist and not just do it for a magazine or a newspaper.

Tom Hundley: The collapse of the old media business model has put pressure on everyone, but the ethical standards remain the same. Does everyone adhere to these standards? Do new arrivals on the media scene fully understand and embrace these standards?
No and probably not, but that is nothing new and doesn’t mean the standards have changed.

Victor J. Blue: It feels like these days there is a pressure to loosen those ethical lines. Folks seem to be getting more forgiving of the kinds of transgressions that got people bounced from the practice before, and I think that’s unfortunate. I think much of the shift is in the service of esthetics…to either make the pictures stand out visually or to make the process of shooting them easier, or novel.

And there’s been a clamor for new approaches to photography that leave behind what some see as these “constraints.” I honestly think there are a few folks who are willing to sacrifice other people’s credibility for their own artistic imperatives. We live in a time where the concept of factual information is under attack. “Relaxing” or shifting the rules is a decisive ploy in favor of that attack.

This isn’t abstract and it isn’t moralistic. If you do serious work, your credibility is the currency you trade in. Ethical rules in photojournalism exist to preserve that credibility. It has real world consequences. We make stories about tragedy, about upheaval, about the effects of power and money and politics on people. Our credibility is what readers use to assess our fitness as messengers. It’s irresponsible to undermine that.

PDN: What do you think the causes of those particular shifting ethical mores are?
Victor J. Blue: This isn’t that complicated. It’s laziness. It’s a shortcut to novelty, to pictures that “stand out”…. I’d rather make honest pictures inside the ethical codes of the discipline. I’d rather look at mediocre photography than dishonest photography.

None of this is to make an argument for a documentary photography that never changes. Much about the old model is outmoded—the ways in which it has excluded women, photographers from developing nations and ethnic and racial minorities in the service of a dominant narrative. We are in a process now of opening up to new voices and viewpoints. This process will only strengthen the profession. Photojournalism has to change and evolve. But to remain relevant, it has to hold onto its claim to the truth, one that adheres to observed and investigated facts.

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