Exploring our responsibility to the people we photograph (part one)

A photographer/friend wrote me with an excellent question, one that I now realize that I have been struggling with over my entire career as a photographer/photojournalist. In order to answer him coherently I needed to do what I have been doing in so many recent blog entries. That is, taking the question, rolling it around in my head, mining my life’s experience, making some half-baked notes and then asking him (and myself) more questions. Although I have the outlines of an answer, I have no idea exactly where this series of blog entries will go by the time it is it is finished. The one thing I am sure of is that it will take me a few postings to both think through my answer and to make it coherent enough for others to understand.

The question is simply, as a photojournalist, what is your responsibility to the people you are photographing? Finding an answer, for me, has been a life long quest going all the way back to when I first started working as a photojournalist. I am not much closer to an answer, by the way. What I have done over the last thirty years is try out different strategies and then discard them, always in pursuit of a better strategy. I am defining “better” to mean an approach that serves equally well both my interests as the photographer and the subject’s interests.

In this blog entry I will frame the question based on what my friend wrote me. In subsequent blog entries I will explore the many strategies I have experimented with over the last three decades. If all goes well, I will write at least one entry exploring how other photographers that I know, or know of, have dealt with the same question. I am not spoiling the ending to say that the best way to learn from my experience (and that of others) is not to expect a single, absolute answer. The best you can hope for is to fully understand the question. If you do that, you will be far ahead of most other photographers.

Jason Nicholas wrote me a few questions and directed me to his own blog where he fully framed this question and quite a few others. Snippets of his questions and blog postings said:

• I hope that I present myself in a way where this trust is gained by my work. I’m just wondering if there is something I can do (on both ends of the process, making the images and presenting them) that would codify my intent (do you know if anyone has written something like a Hippocratic Oath for Photographers?)….

I want to gain a solid philosophical underpinning for those actions. This is both for my own piece of mind as well as a defense against criticism.…

I want to consider how to enter into a situation where I am essentially the only one with apparent power and give people the ability to play a role in how they are portrayed….

There are more parties involved than just the photographer and the subject as well. We must consider to what end these images are used. The viewer must react in some way…either by taking some action to remedy the situation or not. The act of viewing an image places moral responsibility on the viewer to respond; they are, in some sense, ‘present’ in the situation brought to them by the image….

What about turning the copyright phrase on its head and say ‘all rights respected’ as in if all the rights of the photographed, photographer, and viewer were respected in a given image? What if that were not a question but a statement (e.g. (c) 2010 Jason Nicholas–All Rights Respected?)

More of this can be found at http://www.edgeofsomewhere.com/ It is well worth reading. Some of his questions are about photography in particular and some are about journalism in general. Journalism in this case referring to the underlying reason a set of photos are made and the expected outlet for disseminating some of those photos. Most of my own blog entries will explore my experience with the photography though right now I want to consider the journalistic aspect.

Journalism is and has always been a business. That may change in the future, with models like that of National Public Radio being an example, but at its core it is a business. Many journalists approach it as a mission, which is probably a good thing, because that leaves us, the consumers of journalism, with the highest quality work. I certainly did that and I paid the price in terms of lower income for decades as a staff photographer and later as a freelance photographer. I was in essence exchanging lower wages for on-the-job training. The publishers (in the case of print) or gatekeepers (in the case of electronic media) understand that model and exploit it well because they have a clearer appreciation for the business side of journalism.

One way that such publishers/gatekeepers have been exploiting that disconnect is through the use of what is now known as “citizen journalism.” In that, readers are increasingly playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information. Ironically, as “citizen journalism’ has grown, some people have called for a more formal training structure for journalists. I am not here to argue the merits or weaknesses of either strategy. I simply want to point out how well intended ideals like establishing journalistic credentials on par with diplomatic credentials go against the business trends and would be unimaginably expensive to begin with. It would also create journalists with credentials that would be suspect in the eyes of many of the publishers or gatekeepers, who as business people tend to be more conservative in their political orientation.

So how did I deal with that first question, about the business of journalism vs. the mission of the journalist? In the early part of my career, 1980 to 1986, when I was working for newspapers, I kept moving from newspaper to newspaper looking for just the right job. In my youthful delusions, such a job would have let me do the kind of in-depth photo-stories that I wanted to do, while I was paid decently. In my dream, I would have that same work published in ways that powerfully impacted the community I was working within. What a great dream! To the typical newspaper publisher I probably came across as a prim Dona who was useless at doing what he or she needed. They needed me to fill up the pages between the ads with single images covering a wide variety of topics that were of interest to the reader, not necessarily to the photographer. I am neither condemning the idea of the journalist on a mission nor promoting the publisher trying to run their business. I am simply outlining the reality I worked within.

Needless to say I never found that dream job during the six years that I worked full time as a newspaper photographer. During the subsequent ten years, 1986 to 1996, I worked as a full-time freelance magazine photographer. Then, I was fortunate to work with a few great magazines that allowed me to perform my mission as a journalist. The better publishers that I worked with aligned my work and their business in such a way that both of us benefited. It was great gig while it lasted. But the publishing world has been changing rapidly in the decade since and that model no longer works for me (or for those once successful publishers.)

In the decade, 1996 to 2006, I expanded into the world of stock photography with the idea that I could still do “my” work while living off the income from the reuse fees paid for my images. The upside was independence but the downside was that I was moving further and further into isolation in terms of the work I was making. The good news was that I had built an economic model that allowed me to pursue my journalistic mission. The bad news was I was so disconnected from the publishers/gatekeepers that it became harder and harder to get my work out into the world for others to experience. The irony was that, purely by accident, I had presaged the current decimation of the publishing industry.

My most recent shift towards working in photography education continues both trends. It increases the opportunity for me to fulfill my own, self-defined mission as a photographer, but it also further isolates me in terms of getting my work in front of the audiences I want to reach. Yes, I can and do post my work on the web and have my work in exhibitions. But the atomization of media outlets has lead us to a point where every photographer has a voice but there are so many of us speaking out through our work that no one really hears most of us.

So, as feared, I have gone on for pages and barely scratched the surface when it comes to answering Jason’s question. What I have learned through all of this (and this is the first part of a real answer) is that now, whether photographing for a client, for stock or for myself, I am always working to make my pictures first. That seems very obvious but it is very important. Yes, I make the image(s) that the client wants but then I go further and make my own images, to fulfill my “mission.” Similarly I make photos that I know will be good stock photos to keep my “business” going but again, after that, I go further and make my own images. I do this because it keeps me happy, it makes images that the clients may like better and leaves with images that may be doubly useful as stock. Mostly though I do it out of loyalty to myself first, in order to continue on my “mission,” which is the unending journey that good photography always is.

One response to “Exploring our responsibility to the people we photograph (part one)”

  1. David, you are opening up such important questions. In other blogs and places you also explore the importance of refining your techniques, defining you (changing) vision and finally communicating your vision to viewers. All of these being wound in and around the important career and philosophical questions that you raise here. You are giving us and future students so many insights into our photographic documentary and artistic processes.

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