Photographer Interviews

Do the Right Thing: David Guttenfelder on Ethical Choices

July 14, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© David Guttenfelder

David Guttenfelder.

David Guttenfelder is one of five photojournalists PDN interviewed for the Ethics and Photography issue (July). In this interview, we asked Guttenfelder about maintaining independence while working as an embedded journalist, his views on new forms of documentary photojournalism, his training in ethics, the changing marketplace and the importance of credibility.

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. Since leaving the AP, his advertising photography has won honors from the Cannes Lion Festival, D&AD and the AICP show.

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. I went to journalism school, took classes in law and ethics, worked for newspapers and then the AP. Journalism was a calling and, as they taught in civics class, an essential part of a democracy.

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 kind of role models. Even in the newsroom, we are hiring for what once would have been a position as a photo editor young people who have different skills, relating to digital media or design. 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.

I see old archival photos of mine from AP used [out of context]: There will be a murder in Japan and the story is illustrated with a crime scene photo I shot 15 years ago. There are people making decisions who don’t think about things the way we thought about them.

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, different conceptual approaches to storytelling. I like and learn from and look for photojournalists who tell stories in a new way.

I’ve changed and evolved. 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 it, 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 about veterans’ suicides. We made billboards to address the stigma. I learned I could be a storyteller and a journalist and not just do it not only for a magazine or a newspaper.

PDN: How do you feel about intervening in the story or offering something to the subjects you cover?
DF: When I worked for the AP or a newspaper, I was meant to always behave as though I had no opinion or stake in [the story]. Now that I’m independent and free to make my own decisions, I’m open about my point of view. I am transparent about how I came to my conclusions and put my opinion out there and defend it.

PDN: You feel you owe transparency to your readers?
DF: I think that telling your story through your own life, as you do on social media, isn’t just vanity. I think it’s an asset when you’re trying to work in an ethical way. It allows you to be fully transparent, to say how you felt that morning. On Instagram, if I have a partnership with someone, especially if it’s sponsored content, I have to say: “#ad,” and say clearly what it means, who’s paying the bills for this, why I’m partnering with them, so people understand.

PDN: How do you manage your subjects’ expectations of what you can and can’t do for them?
DF: I think you have to consider every time with every person that very often people aren’t in the position to understand how much reach your photos have, how many people will see it, what their impact can be. I think you know, you can easily try to gain access into somebody’s life by being coy about what you’re doing, but that’s not the right way to go about it.

When I was on military embeds, I talked not only to the public affairs officer or the captain but to his men who are 18 or 19 and never been out of their own country. I’d say: I’m working for AP, we reach this many newspapers, this many people can see the photos, I don’t have control over the headlines, sometimes the pictures are cropped or the caption is edited. My company will never sell these images for commercial use. Bad things are going to happen. I’m going to take pictures. I’m here to photograph everything, because you guys want the world to know what you are doing, and no one wants it to be sugarcoated.

I worked in North Korea, and made 40 trips over more than ten years. I worked with a minder. I wasn’t censored and I didn’t censor myself. But…this was a country where “photojournalist” meant “propagandist working for the state who paints a sterilized utopian vision of the country,” then I come with a tradition of bringing an independent, critical point of view. It was a conversation day to day, and it evolved a lot over the years. The arguments were: “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.”

PDN: The concern about embeds or working with government officials is that the photographer is obligated to them, and then favors them.
DF: 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 to their subject, especially a subject we otherwise think of as the other or an enemy. My feeling is that if a photographer can go in with an ethical view, knowing what their responsibility is, then we should do it. The alternative is to close the door.

Sometimes the work that I shared on Instagram overshadowed other work that I did. That reflected I think a change in the way Americans especially consume news.

PDN: How so?
DF: People would say, “That stuff in newspapers and magazines, that’s mainstream media, you can’t trust it. Look at this guy doing this Instagram thing from North Korea, it’s totally raw.” I got comments like that on my Instagram feed. They saw it as subversive and real and authentic and they saw the other as this mainstream, controlled thing but it was the same guy shooting the same things with 35mm for magazines and my phone for Instagram.

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?
DF: 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. I won’t do an environmental story about a multinational corporation’s impact and then let them pick up the check,  it’ll impact my ability to look at it independently or it’ll impact the credibility of my work.

I think it’s about deception. I’m trying to be honest and trying to come to an honest conclusion and trying to be transparent. When I hired journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’d explain to them the rules about manipulating pictures, setting up pictures and other unethical things. I’d say: I will defend you to the end of the earth as long as you’re honest with me. I can’t defend you if you lie to me, and I’ve been doing this long enough that I ‘ll know when I look at your disc if you’re not honest.

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. If you undermine the power of photojournalism, I take it very seriously. And then I’d say if I catch you doing it, you’re fired.

I was raised by some of the most creative, constantly adapting, open-minded people who were also absolutely pure to our business. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to new techniques. Work like Daniella Zalcman’s [“Signs of Your Identity,” which combines portraits of First Nations people over fragments of landscape images]: I’m open to that. She’s putting pictures together for a reason, there’s no deception there at all.

I’d say I’m open-minded but I’m not forgiving. If someone breaks a hard rule, and they do damage to the credibility of my calling, then I think it’s one strike and they’re out.

This article is part of a larger series of interviews with photojournalists and a veteran photo editor on the topic of ethics. You can find these additional interviews here