Photographer Interviews

Do the Right Thing: Victor J. Blue on Ethical Choices

July 12, 2017

By Conor Risch

Victor J. Blue.

Victor J. Blue is one of five photojournalists PDN interviewed for our issue on Ethics and Photography (July). Here Blue talks about avoiding conflicts of interest, maintaining journalistic credibility amidst changes in documentary photography, and his views on the photojournalist’s responsibility to readers, subjects, editors and sources, including the people protecting embedded journalists.

Blue has done assignments in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and in Afghanistan 
and Iraq where he has embedded with military—most recently an Iraqi police SWAT team during the battle of Mosul.  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.

PDN: When you’re covering a subject, or seeking access to their homes, their lives, what kind of a 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, yes they will be on the internet, yes they will have your name on them. Over the years I also find that 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 know it feels kind of weird having someone watch you and hear the clicking of the camera, but that will pass. 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.”

PDN: Do you see yourself as a neutral observer?
VJB: Always independent, never neutral. I think Nachtwey said that. I agree with it—I’m not neutral, and 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. Now, that isn’t always easy to do, I recognize that. But I am always independent—I don’t work at the behest of an entrenched interest, of a predetermined outcome, or an unquestioned orthodoxy. That can sound easy- “Well 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. Because someone with different politics could just as easily use that justification to do a piece for BP to change perceptions about their record on the Gulf Coast- I don’t think that’s what most photographers mean when they say “change.” 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.

PDN: What are examples of things subjects have asked you for? How have you responded? Which things did you consider ethical to provide, and which did you consider unethical to provide?
VJB: Most of it typical, some weird stuff. Food, a ride, whatever. Often my kit. I try to be clear and transparent about it, that I’m not there to hand out presents, but also easy going. I’ll buy lunch sometimes; I don’t think that’s a huge deal. 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 with them to take them to appointments. I won’t buy someone drugs and I won’t bail them out of jail. I the ethical approach is to do everything you can not to intervene in the story in a way that makes you an actor in it. Because that’s not fair. There’s probably thousands of people struggling in a similar context to your subject, but you picked these people to photograph because of a series of almost random reasons. It doesn’t make sense for us to act as angels, going into the field and 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 DTR, if you set those expectations up out 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. But if you are spending a lot of time with someone in extremis, you should be upfront about the dynamic. 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. I think there’s a bar, and sometimes a circumstance arrives where you have to pause in your role as a journalist and pick up your role as a human being.

PDN: Have you ever intervened (eg, provided translation, transportation, medical assistance, food, etc) on behalf of a subject or subjects? If yes, can you say how you¹ve intervened, and explain how you decide when you consider it appropriate to intervene?
VJB: Yes. I’ve given medical treatment in the field. I don’t think it’s that complicated. There have been times when I’ve seen people gravely hurt and continued to take pictures, and other times when I’ve stopped to provide aid. The difference is if I’m the only one there to intervene. If there is a medic treating someone, I don’t have the expertise to push them aside and take over, unless it’s obvious they are putting someone in danger with their care. But if I am the most competent and there’s not someone better to take on that role, then I believe it’s incumbent on me to step in. I drop my camera, do what needs to be done, then resume. It’s pretty clear cut- again, not being an actor in a scenario until you have to be in order to act as a responsible human being.

PDN: What do you consider the most important or most non-negotiable ethical rules of photojournalism for you personally?
VJB: You don’t Photoshop stuff in or out of the pictures, and you don’t organize the scenes you photograph.

PDN: Where and how did you learn the ethical standards that you adhere to?
VJB: When I started photographing, my subjects were my friends, and I hated when they mugged for the camera. I would stop and wait for them to quit, then try to make a candid picture, which to me felt more honest.

Later on, there were folks who articulated the ethics and the way of working and helped me understand it. One was Jim Merithew at the San Francisco Chronicle and Wired. He told a story about a photo editor at a paper he worked at—if you showed up for the assignment and the family was all dressed up, you left. They wouldn’t run a picture where people were even dressing up for it. Another was Santiago Lyon, the former Director of Photography for the Associated Press. When I went to Eddie Adams Workshop, he gave a barnburner of a talk about the lengths the AP goes to so they can root out faked pictures. And he helped me realize what was at a stake and why once those lines are crossed, how the credibility of that photographer’s entire work is compromised, and that they have to leave the profession.

And then, of course, the NPPA Code of Ethics, and the new World Press Photo guidelines. I think for the latter it’s a case of too little too late, and it seems like with the new contest they aren’t making a definitive statement one way or the other. But I like signing something when you file your contest entry. It makes you realize that there’s a baseline, an assumption of veracity in the pictures that can be broken. That’s a good thing.

PDN: Do ethics come up in your conversations with your editors and other clients?
VJB: Not enough. I wish they came up more. I honestly wish more industry folks would stand up for them.

PDN: Do you feel that the ethical lines of photojournalism are shifting in any way? If so, can you explain how?
VJB: It feels like these days there is a pressure to loosen those ethical lines. Over the last couple years, folks seem to be getting more forgiving of the kinds of transgressions that got people bounced from the practice before. Especially if there’s a ton of money or prestige invested in keeping the photographer in the fold, and I think that’s unfortunate. In the end, I think much of the shift is in the service of aesthetics…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.” There is a strain of intellectualization of this discussion that I feel does more to confuse and obfuscate what’s at stake than it does to clarify it. I honestly think there are a few folks who are willing to sacrifice other people’s credibility for their own artistic imperatives. I find it a little childish and self-serving the way that some photographers want to shift them. 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?
VJB: This isn’t that complicated. It’s laziness. It’s a shortcut to novelty, to pictures that “stand out.” The pressures of making great doc photos—sometimes informed by work that came before that was unethical—creates this drive to take shortcuts, to loosen what some see as restraints. They aren’t restraints that need to be loosened. I think it’s silly. I’d rather make honest pictures inside the ethical codes of the discipline. Even if they aren’t heralded as “great” photography. I’d rather look at mediocre photography than dishonest photography.

That’s what is so interesting about it: You don’t see photographers fleeing the discipline en masse. You see them trying to change the rules and stay inside it. They still want to be considered photojournalists, or at least documentary photographers. Why is that? Why not just be a “fine-art” photographer? Because there is still an assumption of truth, of veracity to documentary photography that they want to be associated with.

None of this is to make an argument for a documentary photography that is frozen in amber, 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 addressing these issues, of opening up to new voices and viewpoints, and this process will only strengthen the profession. Many of these new voices are creating work in dangerous and contested contexts, and they don’t deserve to have the credibility they work hard to maintain undermined by colleagues that feel “constrained.” Part of what built the credibility and the audience for what we do is the assumption that we are not bullshitting our readers. I believe there is an intrinsic value, an integrity in holding onto that approach as we move forward into a new, strange, and exciting media environment. Photojournalism has to change and evolve—but to remain relevant, it has to hold onto it’s claim to the truth, one that adheres to observed and investigated facts.

PDN: When a publisher picks up a story that you’ve produced at your own expense, what are the rules of transparency that you follow? For example, what types of information about your relationships or transactions (e.g., providing or accepting food, lodging or transportation; exchanges of gifts; monetary or non-monetary compensation to subjects, etc.) do publishers ask you about? What type of information do you feel ethically obligated to disclose voluntarily?
VJB: I follow the same rules of transparency as I do in all my work. There may be conversations or circumstances that I need to keep silent about to protect sources, but I feel ethically obligated to disclose anything short of that.

PDN: It is now often impossible to gain access to many stories without military escort, or material support from an NGO (permission, transportation, food and lodging), permission from a military government, the watchful eye of government minders, or other entities that censor photographers or encourage them—with threat of expulsion—to self-censor. How seriously are you ever compromised by those types of arrangements? What more do you think photographers and publications should do to improve their transparency about them?
VJB: This is a big problem and one that we as professionals have to navigate with a bit of grace. I don’t find myself compromised by them very often—usually people fighting kind of get why you’re there, and if you’re willing to be on the front lines with them they respect that and leave you alone, more or less. I’ve never been censored by any agency. 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 and maybe don’t get treated as such. 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. Luckily we were able to get around that obstruction to tell the full story that we found, but it’s a real problem. I think we need to be a little more adversarial in dealing with NGO’s and less likely to play on their teams.

Blue also stopped by the PDN offices for an in-person interview on the subject of ethics. Watch the video below for the full interview:

Note: 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