In the last (and the next) few blog posts, I am exploring the question, what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they are photographing? On one level this is an intensely personal decision that is best answered after an equally intensely process of decision-making. On the other hand, it has to be guided by some larger philosophical framework. If that sounds like an ethical dilemma, I think it is. Because I am slightly closer to the end of that long process rather than the beginning, I can identify and share some of the milestones of my own journey.
Studying the history of photography in the context of a classic liberal arts college curriculum certainly prodded me to consider the question. On the other hand, looking at the question in an academic environment all but encouraged me to see the whole process as an intellectual exercise rather than a real world problem with real people involved. That disconnect was only amplified when, shortly after graduating from college, I worked briefly as a freelance magazine photographer for the now defunct Gamma-Liaison photo agency. Photographing politicians, movie stars and publicity seeking crazies in the media-driven swirl of Southern California was not the best place to consider such important ethical questions.
I can not say I was remotely aware of it at the time, but my next step, a full time job at a small town suburban newspaper outside of Los Angles was something of a baptism by fire when it came to that question. The bulk of our coverage, besides local sports and features, was local news, which consisted largely of auto accidents, house fires and the occasional earthquake or homicide. The bulk of this “news” took place in the poorer cities that surrounded Downey, which was widely perceived as an island of stability and civility amidst the poorer neighboring cities, which all sat south of downtown Los Angeles. The way life looked to the typical readers was that disaster befell whoever left the newspaper’s enclave. Doubly so to the readership of a small daily newspaper serving a politically conservative, disproportionately white and older audience.
On the other hand, for a young and ambitious photojournalist, it was an amazing place. Everything that the readers feared and the editors wanted portayed as a warning sign to readers, drew my attention. Those same of auto accidents, house fires, earthquakes and homicides offered opportunities to make great works of photojournalism. Did I think about my responsibility to my subjects? At the ripe old age of 23, I was having far too much fun and was in too much of a professional hurry to do that, at least initially.
A year or so into learning the basics of being a newspaper photojournalist, largely through on the job training, I did encounter the first clear and obvious milestone in my ethical journey. My ideas about covering news crashed into the ideas of the local freelancer who had been covering news for the paper long before I arrived. She made her money taking photos of news events, mostly traffic accidents and fires, and then selling those to both the newspaper and later to the insurance companies that were inevitably involved in the post-incident clean-up and compensation. In her mind, what mattered was getting a photo from the incident, made at the time of the incident, regardless of the hour or the aesthetic quality. Much of her work was made with straight, on-camera flash, which was good for conveying information but not so good at conveying the human experience of those who were victims of the various incidents.
I had quickly learned that nighttime images of traffic accidents rarely yielded particularly interesting images. I also found that folks whose houses burnt down in the middle of the night usually went back in daylight to see what had happened. In that daylight, seeing the devastation, was when they often were the most emotional. To me, photographing that type of event made a much more compelling image of the human drama of a news event compared to the more informational photos of the house burning down in the middle of the night.
The same freelancer chided me one day in the field, and then back in the newspaper office within earshot of the managing editor after I photographed just such an early morning, post-house-fire damage survey. In the foreground of the image that I made, a middle aged woman leaned into and then briefly cried on the shoulder of her neighbor, as firemen picked through the smoking remains of her home in the background. My editors and peers thought it was a good news photo, because it was full of human drama, etc. The news-chasing freelancer said I was too aggressive as I was intruding on the grief of the woman surveying her wrecked home. For a few days after the house fire photo was published, I was conflicted. On the one hand, the older freelancer had a point about the woman’s grief, but my editors (and peers) thought that showing that same grief was the key to the photo.
I have to add an odd footnote about the internal dialogue that was started by the house-fire incident and further stoked by my conversation with the news-chasing freelancer. Because she worked so long in a predominantly male profession (and because of the subject matter she photographed) she presented a tough persona. She made sure she came off as strong enough for the work while being un-phased by what she saw. I eventually realized that she might not have been the best person to guide me on my ethical journey when she described dead burn victims of a particularly horrific car fire as “crispy critters.” Her words. Not mine.
Covering spot news for small newspapers and later for a large newspaper like the Los Angles Times had some rewards, though most of which were not economic. Getting photos published on the front page and the attendant “atta-boys” from editors and peers were very motivating. For the Times, I covered May Day riots, houses destroyed in mudslides and multi-car pile-ups. Each news event taught me something different, whether technical, aesthetic, journalistic or all of the above. Occasionally I would ask myself about the broader ethical questions about my responsibility to my subject, but not that often.
The next lesson blindsided me after I left California for Texas. I photographed a homeless family living in a school bus outside of Fort Worth, Texas while I was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You can see some of that at: https://www.davidhwells.com/docuBus/index.html Because the kids attended school and the father was working, I would only spend nights and weekends with the family, photographing their life in and around the bus. The final imagery was published in the newspaper and then offers to help the family quickly poured in. In hindsight, it was almost a cliché.
What seemed like a well-intentioned church based group stepped forward and offered to help the homeless family rebuild their lives. They sought to manage the outpouring of support we had spurred. They pointed out that the second, third or fourth donated refrigerator meant for the family might benefit other homeless families. Then human nature kicked in and the original family insisted on keeping all the refrigerators to sell and then live off the proceeds. Then the people from the church got touchy, since both parents smoked, which was against that particular church’s beliefs. It went down hill quickly after that and the last I heard the family was actually back in the bus, but fully in control of their lives.
Maybe a decade later I heard, through one of my stock agents, that one of the grown kids had contacted a textbook publisher in reference to one of my images. All he had asked was that in future uses of that same image, the caption with the photo showing him as a homeless child, say that the family was no longer homeless.
After Texas, I moved to Syracuse, NY to work in another (and my last) newspaper staff photography positions. I spent most of my free time on a project photographing four young men who were going into the Marine Corps. The project had many attractions, not the least of which was that these four high school students had chosen to enlist and had explicitly chosen to cooperate with me. So I felt like I was coming at the project a bit more responsibly (and with my eyes wide open,) as compared to the Texas homeless family (and numerous other projects that had spurred ethical dilemmas along the way.)
After working in Syracuse I moved to New York City for two and a half years where I freelanced for many publications. It was only when I later moved to Philadelphia could I finally immerse myself in the kind of photo-essays I had long wanted to do. In between establishing myself as a freelancer in Philadelphia I started working on what would be some of the most important early, in-depth photo-essays of my career. Some of the projects were pretty straightforward in terms of ethical issues. Not much to worry about when photographing the play of light and shadow in a train station. Others were much more complex, including freelance projects I did on poor and homeless Jews in Philadelphia as well as one on the working poor in North Philly.
Although I couldn’t yet put my finger on it at that point, I was starting to realize the dilemma I had set up. Yes, I had a clear responsibility to my subjects but I also had to get the pictures my employers needed, in order to make a living. No, the ends did not justify the means. But living in an ivory tower and pondering this as a philosophical issue rather than a real life situation would have got me no closer to an answer. So, I did what I used to do often, which is what I am doing with this blog, push the question back till another day, yet to come.