|Documentary photography and ethics |
Contents Fragments Theme
Ethics concerns the moral decisions of humanity and the courses of action in specific situations. The nature of the work of photojournalists and documentary photographers places them into locations where the moral balance of society has been discarded such as conflict. Should a photographer become an active participant in the conflict where the injustice is seemingly so obvious? Should, or can, a famine victim be saved in a situation where tens of thousands are starving?
Sudan - Famine
PhVKevin Carter: Sudan
Those who view photographs from a distance have their knowledge bounded by the frame. We criticize from a lack of knowledge but with feelings that are based on empathy and at times with a sense that we would be better people than the photographers. We would have intervened when they didn't - or we think they didn't do enough. One of the most well known cases of this is the Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Kevin Carter who was a well-respected photojournalist who had been a part of the Bang Bang Club that had photographed in the South African townships during Apartheid. In March 1993 Kevin Carter was photographing in Sudan and took a photograph of a slumped over child with a vulture behind with the connotations obvious. A telephoto lens would collapse the distance between the two but the image has visual power because of the future it supposedly predicts. The photograph was published in The New York Times on 26 March 1993 and was widely republished and there was a natural response "What happened to the child?" On 27 July 1994 Kevin Carter committed suicide, depressed with the loss of fellow photojournalists, money problems and what he had seen. Parts of his suicide note read:
"I am depressed ... without phone ... money for rent ... money for child support ... money for debts ... money!!! ... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners ... I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky."
The ethics of a situation are rarely clear cut as interviews and accounts of others who were at the same event provide additional information, but as with witness accounts more generally, clarification is murky.
Haiti - Earthquake
PhVEarthquake in Haiti
During the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti a 15 year old girl Fabienne Cherisma was shot by the police for looting. The dead girl was photographed by Paul Hansen and the resulting photograph won the Swedish Picture of the Year Award 2011. A further picture of the same event was photographed by Nathan Weber the same prostrate girl in a pink dress with a line of photojournalists taking essential the same image as Paul Hansen. Nothing could be done for the girl as she was already dead but there is a callousness to seeing people making their living from the death. It does raise another issue that is far more difficult to answer:
The debate that is arising in Sweden revolves around the question, “Would Sweden have donated less for disaster relief if that photo had not been published?” Or “Would fewer resources and professionals have been sent?”
- Λ Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, 2000, The Bang Bang Club, (Basic Books)
In 2010 the film The Bang Bang Club directed by Steven Silver was released.
- Λ Scott MacLeod, 12 September 1994, "The Life and Death of Kevin Carter", Time magazine
- Λ 2010 Haiti earthquake
(Accessed: 27 July 2014)
- Λ Paul Hansen - Swedish Picture of the Year Award 2011
The First Photo Won a Prize; The Second Made a Controversy Explode
(Accessed: 21 January 2013)
Please note: On the Internet there are interviews with many of the photographers who were present and their reactions to what happened. These should be read by those seeking to make judgements.
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