Photographer Interviews

Doing the Right Thing: Nina Berman on Ethical Choices

July 21, 2017

Nina Berman.

Nina Berman is one of five photojournalists PDN interviewed for the Ethics and Photography issue (July). In this interview, Berman, a documentary photographer and an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, discusses the changes in the editorial market and how it influences the choices photographers make while covering stories, the responsibility of editors, and the principles she teaches her students.

A member of NOOR, Nina Berman’s photos and videos have been shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial and published in magazines including TIME, Newsweek, Geo, Columbia Journalism Review and The Sunday Times Magazine.  She has published two monographs: Purple Hearts and Homeland.

Nina Berman: The market has fundamentally changed the role of the photographer as witness and observer.

When there was plenty of money to send people out on stories, you could wander and shoot and investigate as a journalist, and then your story was published.  Maybe not the way you wanted it, in which case you did a book, which didn’t cost $30,000, but was paid for by the publisher.

As money dried up, people started to look for other sources of support, so 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.  As funders often predicate grants based on the promise by the photographer to place the work you now have loads of blogs and even sections of major publications—The New York Times Op Docs, The Guardian, essentially completing the NGO/foundation funding circle.  And the digital economy means 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.

It’s, “Oh look, they’re not just showing what is happening in the world, but they also care and are trying to do something about it,” beyond the publication.

The problem here is that often the power dynamics and intention of photographers, and rules of collaboration and consent, are not transparent. Or photographers become these celebrity characters and the images, for me, can sometimes read as one-dimensional.

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 justify 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.

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.

Of course, there are some gray areas.

Once you’re in the story, you change the natural projection of that story; just your physical presence changes the story. It’s just a fact of life.  The idea of a clean, neutral observation might apply to scientific experiments but it gets a bit murky with photography.

Still, what’s most important is transparency and intent. Are you giving a subject a ride to the doctor because they haven’t really signed onto the story and you want to smooth things out? Or are you giving them a ride to the doctor because you have a vehicle and they just had a seizure, or more likely, the protagonist of your story is no more simply a subject, but someone more like a friend, and what you’re doing is no longer a piece of investigative journalism.

I had a student who was shooting an area where gangs operate. Parents don’t let their kids out at night in that community. But [the photography student] has a picture of a girl outdoors in the evening. Why? Because the photographer is walking the girl home from a friend’s house. That photo probably wouldn’t have happened if the photographer hadn’t been there. Does that mean it’s not an ethical photo? Not in my mind.

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.

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?

Sometimes—and we saw this recently with a Lens Culture/Magnum contest posting—editors make appalling decisions, and only when photographers rally on social media are the editors or contest judges called to task. It would be helpful to all involved to see editors talk more publicly and be more engaged in these conversations. 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 worldview priorities some stories over others.

For instance, it’s no coincidence, that 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, when they’re a new troop surge, 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 of 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.

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