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Wednesday, 30 March 2011


A later comment on the BBC images states "Black-and-white images are not inherently more 'artistic' than those in colour. That's just silly."

I took the second commenter to be a direct response to the first comment "Feel guilty just appreciating the artistic beauty of the photos due to the darkness in them."

IMO The photographs are unduly dark and obviously (over)manipulated (contrast, vignetted, etc.) for effect which I consider inappropriate for reportage. Unlike the first commenter however I don't see them as artistically beautiful, just obscured. OTOH I am given to understand that is the standard for "Art" these days.

I would think the best photojournalists have to have a really strong drive to document; people don't get to the top of such a demanding and complex profession without really serious commitment. I suspect such a drive can be fueled by anything from a clear vision of how their pictures, communicating the tragedy, will move people to respond "well", to a simple personal fascination with disaster and tragedy. The pictures resulting can still move people to respond with compassion; and pictures taken with the clearest vision of compassion can be appreciated by vultures who just like disasters, too. No doubt in most people (viewing photos) and most photojournalists neither approach dominates to the total exclusion of the other.

If a person has maybe a bit too much vulture in their makeup, it seems to me that finding a socially valuable way to put that to work is grounds for praise, not blame. And accusing somebody who does the work from the purest of motives of being a vulture is insulting.

I'm pretty doubtful that we can accurately diagnose which side was in the ascendant at any given instant (in a person we don't know, working in very stressful environments thousands of miles away in space and hours to years away in time) by looking at the photos published.

(Apologies to any photojournalists out there who feel that it's out of line to suggest that any of their profession might have a bit too much vulture in their makeup. This is a theory, based on broad distant data rather than close personal knowledge of photojournalist vultures; maybe I'm completely off-base. I see it as noticing that some imperfect human beings find ways to put their imperfections to socially useful work, and I see that as praiseworthy. I don't think denying one's darker side is always the sanest way of dealing with it; and I think everybody has some darker side.)

If a process conveys the truth of the situation, in this case the immensity of the tragedy at hand, isn't it exactly what we photographers should be doing? That is, deploying all the tools we have to show not just the literal truth of a situation, but to tell the story as well as we can.

I have absolutely no problem with documenting incidents that have happened, recording a dead body in the strongest/most "artistic"/dramatic etc way. Too often life is presented in a Disneyesque way, all the animals live, nobody is hurt etc.

What I do have a huge problem with is a far more difficult issue, at what point should the journalist step in?

This video is strong, be warned, but it is an example of where I have a problem.


Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the people, should that have been allowed to happen without interruption?

You can't have it both ways. If news photographs are rejected because colour is overly manipulated (for artistic reasons) then using B&W for dramatic effect is no different, surely? I'm with the Beeb on this one.

Well, this is probably going to make me unpopular around here, but I tend to agree with the 2nd commentary on the BBC site. In fact, I just published an article a few weeks ago which made roughly the same point, here http://goo.gl/WrrA6 -- if you're interested in reading it.

This topic goes deep to the roots of "photography" - in whatever guise you want to put it. Some folk will roll their eyes, but Sontag's "On Regarding the Pain of Others" might be a starting point. The fine art brigade want photos to be closer to the traditional visual imagery of painting, but there is a huge gulf. Whatever you think of Barthes as discussed in this blog recently, or Sontag, one thing is clear. What they had to say could not be said about paintings, could only be said about photographs.

The "B&W == arty" view is also a widespread, and not uncomplicated phenomenon

Re the Fabienne Cherisma shot: I can understand some of the brouhaha surrounding this--likely because of the second image. There is something unsettling about all the photographers clustering around her body like a flock of vultures.

But from another standpoint, looking at the first photo, I can see why they did this--they saw an opportunity to make a strong photographic statement.

Makes me think of that comment Larry Burrows made one day while shooting the Vietnam war: "Some days one feels like such a bastard doing this."

Re: the comment about shooting the Sendai disaster in black and white being an improper "artistic" view: Totally stupid. Are you trying to say David Douglas Duncan, Robert Capa and Larry Burrows shouldn't have shot their images in black and white, because they were being :"artistic"?

OF COURSE there's going to be an "artistic view" in any good photograph--you do so in order that your photo may tell the story your want it to tell.

If the photogs mentioned above HADN'T taken an "artistic view" to some extent, their photos wouldn't have had the impact they do.

Don't know if b&w film has been used in Japan near the nuclear reactors, but its use would be interesting. It could possibly manifest increased background radiation through film fogging. There are risks to the photographer of course, probably risks too large to take. But it would be a frighteningly graphic way to illustrate the otherwise unseen danger of the radiation leaks.

Apropos vultures, didn't we talk about Kevin Carter and his photo of the little girl and vulture? This is almost the same thing.

Both his photo and the second Haiti photo make me uneasy. But then, what to do? Do you stop or do you try to document? If everybody stopped, who'd ever document and who'd ever know such things happened? The advent of a global society means that people can learn about such things and work on preventing them. Even if "poverty porn" is the price.

What happened to Fabienne Cherisma's body? Did the photographers stay and help to recover her body? Did they help burying her, give her the dignity that she deserves?

Or did they just walk away with a "winning" picture?

Wells, there's arty and there's arty, if you know what I mean. Most photo-journalists, more or less automatically, take the best pictures, formally, that they can. Some take it further than that.

Consider this, though: ask yourself what the most powerful and lasting images of the Iraq war have been -- a war almost a decade old by now. My answer, and I suspect a lot of you would agree, is the Abu Ghraib pictures, in particular the "standing man" (this one: http://goo.gl/0aQ1O). Is it a "good" photograph? No, of course not. Is it powerful, compelling? Of course it is.

Is it more powerful and compelling *because* it isn't 'good'? Tougher question, but my answer would be -- tentatively -- Yeah, probably, to an extent.

By the way, we seem to have two debates going on here, because the original post brought up a series of questions -- one about whether or what pictures should be taken, and one about how they should look. It might be useful for this thread if we were careful to distinguish them. I'm only responding to the latter question.

The Kevin Carter story (http://goo.gl/QK0m) is, I think, the most pointed and famous way of asking of the first.

To me what matters is that this brings Haiti back into people's attention. The plight of one of the poorest countries on earth devastated by an earthquake, famine and cholera epidemic, with close to a million people STILL living in tent camps without many necessities needs more attention than most Disaster Of The Months.

Context is everything, more from Nathan Weber

Actually I'm dumbfounded by the video.
I just erased a couple paragraphs about what I think about it, mostly favorable but it's sort of the extreme opposite of the Jerry Spagnoli 9/11 daguerreotype. ( the best camera is the camera you have, and if you are on your roof with a full plate daguerreotype camera because, well, you spend a lot of time on your roof with a full plate daguerreotype camera, somehow that's supposed to be morally wrong? ) With maybe those recent iPhone war photos
somewhere along that continuum.

I suppose the next thing we will be hearing is that proper spelling and punctuation is too contrived for reportage.

Ethics: something that only exists in the mind of the beholder......somewhat like beauty but somehow less fleeting!

A photographer takes a picture for whatever are his motivations to do so and I'm lokking at it for whatever are my motivations to do so, if I don't agree with the picture, usually nowone hold me at gunpoint.....

There is however a dilema, what about the one being portraied......that one can have ethics that can stop a shot from reaching an audiance. If that happens......you smile politely and just walk away.

Building and rubble don't object but in this case tell an important story wether in color or in the glorious black and the white. And if a photographer wants to take a picture of me when I'm the victim of some natural or human made disaster that has to make the front page, he or she is well advised to do so as artistically as he is damned well able to, unless he (a she stand a better chance) wants to be the victim of a human made impromptu artanged disaster involving a boot and a derriere.

Greetings, Ed

Oh, and JSL:

What's your problem with "shall"?

Do you think it was the black and white paint of Guernica that so offended Tony Shafrazi that he took a knife to it?

Hugh, I don't know if Mike will publish this comment, since he tends, understandably, to discourage cross-talk, but:

(a) the "shall" remark was kind of a joke;
(b) Picasso used little or no black or white paint in 'Guernica' (see here: http://goo.gl/Unctp, and here: http://goo.gl/zz8Ri). It's mostly umbers and very light blues, though it's often described as 'black and white'; and
(c) Shafrazi didn't take a knife to it: he spray painted 'KILL LIES ALL' on it.

Seems to me the trouble it would take to make a daguerreotype would make it something one reserved for the most important instances. And that alone would dictate that taking such photos of something like 9/11 makes more sense than not. Personally I like to shoot black and white film.

Hugh, I think you mean "took spray paint to Guernica."

Scott wrote:
Too often life is presented in a Disneyesque way, all the animals live, nobody is hurt etc.

To which I'd like to reply the following:

In my personal and humble opinion it is unfortunately not the case. I fail to recall any piece of really good news that was recently published by the media that:
- made it to the top news
- was in public mind for longer than a split second

In fact, I fail to recall any piece of simple good news from the mass media at all. It is simply not news worthy to post bright images of smiling faces of happy people. Over here I don't get any of these.

The grimmer and the more disgusting is the better. To that end the picture of so many photographers each taking its own angle at a body a shot girl is typical example of newsworthy imagery.

I pass no judgment whatsoever on the newsworthiness and generally worthiness of such images, but I beg you to have a look and consider whether such images and general direction the mass media is moving in these days, can actually imply something profoundly basic about our society.

As for your original question, Mike. I think my personal humble answer would be "no". If the process is secondary to the decision to take the picture for other than technical reasons - then "no". If it is the other way around, whereas a special process (be it analog or digital, no matter) was devised only for the sole purpose of taking a picture of some grim scene, then I would dare question the integrity of a person who's set upon taking that image.

I certainly hope that none of these photographers moved Fabienne's body in order to change the composition of the shot. That would *definitely* be beyond the pale. Yet a look at these two different photos clearly show her body was moved at some point.



While I don't have any particular trouble with a daguerreotype of the WTC burning, I do have trouble with the argument that that picture was made just because that's the camera he had with him. Given how long it takes to make a daguerreotype, and how close to home he was, the choice of camera wasn't forced in any way I can see. (If that's the only camera he OWNED then there's a case.)

Is it possible for a photograph (or, I suppose, the process of taking a photograph) to be unethical?

If so, then the question becomes an exercise in societal line drawing.

erlik and JSL:

Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote that Shafrazi took a knife to Guernica.

I must have been remembering when he took a knife to a cake decorated as Guernica delivered by strippers dressed as police officers.


The guy has no shame.

Well; it's possible for the process of taking a photograph to be criminal (the blatant obvious case being child pornography).

The relationship between law and ethics is always a contentious one, of course. I don't subscribe to any of the obvious simple-minded rules relating them.

Publishing a photo can certainly be a violation of privacy. I think that can be unethical (I don't necessarily agree with any particular other person's principles of when one can reasonably expect privacy, but I do believe there are such times, and that in ordinary circumstances, violating that privacy is unethical). I think I could argue that taking the photo, and possessing the photo, was in some way a violation of privacy (so long as it exists, it could at any point be published; so it represents the credible threat of a violation of privacy).

Most of the other cases, I can imagine ethical arguments for. Filming people involved in committing a murder is legitimate as a method of collecting evidence, I think (given either a warrant issued on good evidence, or the events taking place in public), but taking the exact same movie to distribute as a snuff film is clearly unethical. (Yes, taking the evidence, and distributing it as a snuff film, is unethical.) Taking the pictures rather than doing something practical to save the person's life is unethical too, of course. But if you can't do anything practical, but can take the pictures to hold out hope of future punishment? Ethically fairly clear to me, though it would be horribly stressful to have to actually do.

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