ASIA: For Photojournalists, No Easy Ethical Answers
Saturday, September 26, 2009 05:11:01 PM
BANGKOK (Asia Media Forum / September 25, 2009) — Where does a photographer draw the line between the search for truth and quest for privacy in covering conflicts? The controversial Associated Press photo of a dying U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, released this month, has once again sparked debates on this tough issue.
The AP photo, which showed the last moments of a soldier, his legs torn and bloody after an attack by Afghan rebels, was criticised as a gross violation of the rights to privacy. The editors of the U.S. wire agency, however, stood by their decision to make the photograph available for any media outlet to use, citing the need to "show the complexity, the sacrifice and the brutality of war".
Veteran photographers and editors in Asia concede that there are no shortcuts to resolving such tricky calls of judgement. Ultimately, they said, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether to publish a graphic photograph or not.
"When faced with difficult choices, there are no easy answers. No textbook of ethics make your decisions for you," veteran photojournalist Shahidul Alam told the Asia Media Forum.
His only "technique", he said, is to ask himself if he "would have been comfortable being subjected to the same treatment".
"From an ethical perspective, the primary question is whether publishing a picture is in the public interest," added the Bangladeshi photographer, managing director of the Dhaka-based Drik Picture Library and the director of the Asian photography festival Chobi Mela.
But then again, the "public interest" is tricky because "there are many interests to consider", he added. Depending on the situation, he explained, these "interests" could range from the people affected by war to politicians and the families affected by the issue.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning German photographer Karsten Thielker, "public interest" is often subjected to double standards, especially in the west.
"We have to realise that a dead human being (from a Third World country) is not treated with the same respect for privacy as one from a First World country... and we've seen this in TV footage of a Palestinian father and his young son who were shot dead during a protest... Many TV stations showed the material but nobody really complained (about it)," said Thielker, former picture editor for the Associated Press in London. He is currently based in the Philippine capital Manila, where he is a university photojournalism lecturer.
He noted the prevalence of graphic images of death in Asian newspapers. Thielker explains that this may be due to the fact that the painful reality of death is considered as much a part of life as life itself in many parts of the region.
"I do believe that life includes death. In western countries, the faces of death have disappeared from the public (eye). While western countries show the brutality of death in other countries, they rarely show gruesome images in their own backyard," added Thielker, 1995 Pulitzer Prize awardee for coverage of the Rwandan civil war.
For all his years of experience on the field, he maintains that taking sensitive photos is always a difficult decision.
"On the spot, it is often difficult to decide. When you get involved in a conflict, and you are very close to people, you certainly will disturb their privacy. You have to judge what is more important — respect of their privacy or the reporting," said Thielker, who describes himself as a war photographer who has covered conflicts in places like Somalia and the Russian republics.
Photojournalist and editor Bobby Timonera of Mindanews, a feature service that focuses on reportage from the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, is familiar with the dilemmas that come with reporting on conflict.
"We need to show the world the real score, but maybe not to the point of showing really gory pictures. Or if we have to, maybe no mention of names or showing of faces," said Timonera, who has reported on armed conflicts in the Philippine south.
Sharing a similar technique that Alam employs when faced with ethical quandaries, Timonera said he would rather err on the side of respect. In August 2008, when told of the location of dead soldiers in Mindanao, he said opted not to go to take pictures as his way of "showing respect for the dead".
"More training in covering conflict is needed. Younger journalists tend to be more adventurous, more daring, and don't care too much about how their news or photos would be received by the public," he said.
For Vietnamese veteran journalist Ngoc Tran, respect for the privacy of an individual is of utmost importance.
Because he abhors violence, the journalism professor and editor said he would avoid publishing graphic photos of the dead as he considers it an invasion of privacy. "I would rather not, as it is contrary to my personal beliefs. One should respect the privacy of an individual even in death," he told the AMF.
To make things more complicated, reporting the 'truth' is often coloured by different perspectives and 'ethics' vary among individuals.
For Alam, ethical issues raised in the AP photograph, for instance, arise not really from its release in public but rather in the "agony that the war continues to cause the many other stakeholders (in the U.S. so-called ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan)”.
"Hopefully, the publication of pictures like these will play a role in reducing the possibility of other families of other soldiers going through similar pain," he said.
"Honestly, there is no truth. There might be a 'reality' but even this is based on individual (perception)," Thielker pointed out. "You can only work from your own perspective and the only rule is not to lie to anybody, including yourself."
Thielker believes that photos merely reflect the photographers’ perspective. "We either can believe in his point of view, or turn to the next page," he said.
For these photojournalists, training and a sense of responsibility and sensitivity are necessary tools in being faithful to the profession.
"Sadly, majority world journalists and photojournalists have not generally demonstrated high ethical standards in their reporting. This is partly due to poor training," said Alam, citing the lack of investment in developing the skills of news staff. He uses the phrase ‘majority world’ to refer to the developing world.
"Responsible reporting requires time, persistence and sensitivity. While speed is king and bottom lines rule, accountants see this in terms of increased costs as opposed to better reporting," he added.
This problem, continued Alam, will only change once a "major culture shift from higher profitability to better reporting" occurs. "Unfortunately, few newsrooms take this long-term view.”
Worse, photographers end up reporting under news editors who "often have little knowledge of photography". Thus, photographers rarely have a say in how their photos are used, he added.
"There are almost no independent photojournalists; his agency or newspaper has the last word and takes the responsibility," said Thielker. "The responsibility of the photographer is to know when to press the shutter. Therefore he should be well educated, open-minded and sensitive." (Lynette Lee Corporal)