What Happens to Journalistic Ethics When the News Site is a Photo Studio

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The practice of manufacturing events – and emotions – by setting up or recreating scenarios that can be photographed is undermining photojournalism

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From the Instagram posting by Khaled Al Sabah


Khaled Al Sabbah, a young, award-winning photojournalist, was caught on video getting a child to strike a mourning pose following the Brussels terror attacks. The footage has sparked a debate on the ethics of photojournalism.

In my own work as a photojournalist, I have often witnessed my colleagues orchestrating the re-enactment of a situation, such as two political leaders shaking hands, or signing MOUs. I have asked them why they do so, and the response always is that they don’t want to miss a picture. However, in focusing on the moment, they not only fictionalise their narratives ­­– which is unethical – they also ignore the larger context of what they’re reporting on.

This is the difference between a photojournalist, and a technician: the latter is hyper-focused on pushing for one photographable moment, without paying heed to the consequences or ethical implications of doing so.

Of course, some stagings involve the mechanical reproduction of a moment – a repeated handshake or a smile or a wave – while others, like the posed shot in Brussels, confect an event or an emotion, turning the photographer and her or his camera into an actor or creator rather than a chronicler of the moment.

Across the world, the response of serious photojournalists has been unforgiving.

“Bad luck for him (Al Sabbah), but he shouldn’t have done it. I guess the pressure by his employer, or a tight deadline, or the need to make a living have eroded his ethics and he gave in,” John Vink, a Belgian photojournalist, told me in an email.

Reinhard Krause, global pictures editor at Thomson Reuters declined to comment on the photo but shared with me the Reuters Code of Conduct, which details the organisation’s rules for staff and freelancers. On the subject of staged pictures, the code says, “Reuters photographers, staff and freelance, must not stage or re-enact news events. They may not direct the subjects of their images or add, remove or move objects on a news assignment.”

Reuters cut ties with freelance photographer Adnan Hajj after it found that he had altered two photographs from Lebanon. Reuters also withdrew all 920 photographs by him from its database.

Despite the setting out of clear guidelines and the possibility of disciplinary action, the practice of staging photos is distressingly common.

As American photojournalist Ed Kashi says, “This event is yet another sad example of photographers, often young but not always so, who feel compelled to amp up their image by making the scene fulfil a vision or message that they either want to tell, or feel the public will want to see. Unfortunately it erodes the public’s trust in our profession, at a time where we are losing that trust at a rate never before witnessed. The ethics of photojournalism preclude directing or setting up anything, except for portraits.”

Altaf Qadri, a photojournalist with Associated Press says, “We, as responsible photographers, must never stage anything. It’s totally unethical. If we lose credibility, we lose everything.”

Photojournalism is, first and foremost, about patience, staying alert, and upholding ethics. Sometimes, in the process, the photojournalist may miss out on a story. However, this is not a licence to set up or recreate the story.

Images tell a story but journalism is about fidelity to the story and not the image.  Sometimes, an  unstaged image, taken out of context, can end up telling a story different from what actually unfolded. I’d like to present an example from my own work. Close to three hundred journalists had gathered on the steps of Sonia Gandhi’s residence in 2009 after the Congress won the elections for the second time. As photographers, we were there to capture Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh smiling, waving their hands, and engaging in gestures of one kind or another.

I was among the throng, taking many gigabytes worth of photographs in rapid fire. When I returned to my workspace, I looked through what I’d taken. A particular image caught my eye ­– in it, Sonia Gandhi is taking a large stride forward, leaving Manmohan Singh behind. Singh, as he usually did, seems to be looking sheepishly at her.

Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi in May 2009. Credit: Shome Basu

Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi in May 2009. Credit: Shome Basu

When my magazine editor saw it, he said we could run it with a strapline suggesting that Sonia Gandhi was remote-controlling Singh. But since I’d been there, I knew the context in which I’d taken the image. In that moment, Manmohan had asked Sonia Gandhi to speak first, and the odd body language that I’d captured occurred in a thousandth of a second during that process. But my picture got published not because it was true to the reality of the event I had witnessed but because it conformed with the political perception in the corridors of Delhi that Manmohan was a puppet in Sonia’s hands.

Another instance of an actual photograph conveying odd body language was a recent image of French president Francois Hollande and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the rock garden in Chandigarh in January 2016.

Narendra Modi and Francois Hollande, Rock Garden, Chandigarh, January 2016. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi and Francois Hollande, Rock Garden, Chandigarh, January 2016. Credit: PTI

As Modi was walking with Hollande through a set of sculptures,  a superfast, motor-driven camera froze a moment which again involved a fraction of a second. History will archive both these images as representations of fact but the circumstances which produced them were very different. ‘After an event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality it would never have otherwise enjoyed.’ This is what Susan Sontag said as a critique of the medium in her book On Photography.

In moments like these, the tricky question of truth-telling remains, when such gestures speak for themselves. There are also graver questions of representation, such as whether it is ethical to take and publish pictures of people in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. The recent debate about the use of Jet Airways stewardess Nidhi Chaphekar’s picture, taken soon after the Brussels attack in the airport, outlines this last problem. That the photographer herself was conflicted was evident by the interview she gave in which she confessed to experiencing a huge sense of relief when she read how Chaphekar’s relatives were happy to learn – through the photograph – that she had survived the terrorist attack.

Ultimately, the person holding the camera is freezing moments in history and journalism requires that those moments be fact and not fiction. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s body of work, including his collection The Decisive Moment, was in some way an outcome of his intense shyness. Preferring photography over verbal interactions, Cartier-Bresson was akin to an invisible being who recorded the times he lived in. This is the photographer’s work: to stick to the story, and responsibly serve as a window into the unseen and unheard world.

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  • Vivek Singh

    Thank you for writing this Shome. I’ve seen this kind of irresponsible and reprehensible behaviour by seasoned Photojournalists. Its a fact and to them it seems normal. AFP, Reuters, they might say otherwise when questioned, but everyone of them is guilty of misconduct. They are always calling out to sonia, manmohan, modi, sir here, sir there. Only if someone were to document their behaviour in the field. But this isn’t all, I’ve seen this happen and even in remote corners, for instance during times of crisis and demonstrations in Assam, I was threatened even, when I questioned a seasoned photographer with a major wire service, why he was asking the demonstrators to act out a scene again, all because he was late in getting there. Its normal practice. But this kind of change must happen with education. Journalist is an integral part of the word Photojournalist, Most guys don’t realise this. And that is sad.