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Questioning photojournalism – How true is truth?

July 8, 2011

Writer – Meera Vijayann

A few weeks after making it to the cover of every newspaper and magazine across the world, debates surrounding photographer Paul Hansen’s image of 15-year old Fabienne Cherisma, a Haitian teenager shot by the police for stealing, made people sit up and take notice. Was there another story behind the photograph?

Not so long after, another famous picture of Fabienne Cherisma began doing the rounds. Only this time, people were offered another view. The callousness with which most photographers were exploiting the tragedy was shot by Nathan Weber, a Chicago-based photographer.

Photo courtesy – Petapixel

Photojournalists are often seriously questioned about the nature of their job. Is it ethical to exploit tragedies? The answer, perhaps, is more complex than a simple yes or no. The news, for obvious reasons just isn’t enough, and needs visuals so that the world sees a reality beyond its reach. And it is almost impossible to draw a line between ‘what has been’ and ‘what could have been’. Most often, both go hand in hand. Certainly, in today’s age of computers and design, photographers can be questioned on the authenticity of their work. Routine digital manipulation has only made people more wary of trusting what they see in the press – remember the photograph that brought The Economist under fire? or the infamous photographs of the 2001 Israel-Lebanon conflict by Middle-eastern photographer, Adnan Hajj?

Stuart Freedman, an award-winning photographer, believes that photojournalism is undergoing an identity-crisis of sorts. Does shooting visual clichés of suffering make good photojournalism? he asks. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. It is unfair to come to a conclusion that all photojournalists are simply a breed of heartless, money-minded cameramen waiting for the worst to happen. The techniques they employ to get their work done can sure as hell look awful. But the bottomline is, engaging visual storytelling often involves looking at photograph at so many different levels. Does it capture the moment? Does it engage? Is it contextual? Does it reflect reality? Does it tell a story? Does it say enough?

For obvious reasons then, the question of ethics tends take a backseat when there’s work to be done.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2011 6:22 am

    Meera, do you believe that ethics should take a backseat in photojournalism?

    • July 16, 2011 7:04 am

      I don’t think that ethics should take a backseat in journalism – classic example is Rupert Murdoch. The editorial should definitely have a strict policy. But I also think that Photojournalists go to extremes because the nature of their job is like that.. For instance, if a journalist was sent to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the quake, it is imperative that he do his job regardless of how he feels. That’s a sad but true fact..

  2. July 19, 2011 11:54 am

    This post reminds me of Kevin Carter and his Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the Sudanese child haunted by a vulture. Almost 2 decades have gone by and yet we are no closer to getting answers about photo-journalism and ethics. A very thought-provoking piece Meera.

    • July 19, 2011 6:35 pm

      Thanks Ansh, it’s a sad reality isn’t it. True. That picture of the Sudanese child really haunted people for years. Another I can think of is of Qutbuddin Naseeruddin, a Muslim man who was pleading for his life in the Gujarat riots. Some pictures do truly speak a thousand words.

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