the responsibility of the photographer

I could go into great detail about what I think believe the responsibilities of a good photographer are - to their family, to their clients, to the world at large and, then, more organically, to the earth that we tread upon to capture time. There are many ideas to expound upon here, and many that I have opinions on, but there is one in particular that strikes me again and again. As a photographer I believe it is my responsibility to tell the story with pictures, whether or not it's a difficult-controversial-ugly-unsanitary story to tell. But when does that responsibility to the truth turn into exploitation?

I am a photojournalist - though not in the sense of communicating breaking news with my camera. I am usually recording a more joyful moment - of a high school student's senior year, of pregnant mother's seventh month, of an adoptive parent's first look at their baby. And, when traveling, I try very hard to communicate a real life look at the places I go, so that others can benefit from the beauty that I see. To give others the chance to live the story through me.

But not every story is one with a happy ending. And sometimes, well, more and more often given today's media presence, photographers are tasked with the responsibility to translate tragedy in ways only words once did. And as anyone who has seen photos from 9-11, Katrina, Haiti, Chili, pick your devastation knows, it's a lot more challenging for viewers to banish gruesome images than perhaps it would be to banish mental pictures that would only be the result of imagination. But then again, could we really fully appreciate what's going on if we were not able to see it with our own eyes? Perhaps not.

The issue of "over-information" is one that media photojournalists have to deal with daily, even hourly, as they are deployed to disaster or war-time locations. They are charged with the responsibility to record the death toll. To record the gravity of the situation. To record the truth. And the response from the public is not always one of gratitude. I read statements from people who, rather impolitely, argue that "enough is enough" when it comes to pictures. They believe there's no need to see certain images - to see the blood, the death, the destruction  - so closely. Perhaps it makes them uncomfortable to see something so terrible, to break into their reality with the unpleasant and the unhappy?

Please don't misunderstand me - I know there are those who use their cameras to take advantage of a situation like a natural disaster, selling the graphic details to the highest bidder and glorifying themselves with their images. In so doing, they are disrespectful to the people involved and they ruin it for those who really are there to communicate the tragedies in a respectful and honest way. There is a way to do it right. And our responsibility as photographers is not just to tell the story, but to know about that fine line, where it is and how to carefully walk it. Personally, I am not sure where I stand even now.

I don't have any disaster experience, but I struggle, as I know other photographers do, with what is OK to photograph versus what is crossing that line. For me, this mainly applies to photographing random people - and, in truth, to photographing homeless people in locations I travel to. In this, I definitely wobble a bit. Yes, I am telling the story. Yes, I am being respectful by keeping my distance, not harassing the person, and knowing when to walk away. But there is this moment, empty of thought, empty of anything but what I see through the viewfinder. In this moment I am not debating, I am not waffling, I am deciding. I am taking the photograph. And I think about it later. I suspect that really is how any photographer with passion does it. For me, it's about the moment - everything else disappears. But again, don't misunderstand me, I am not condoning bad behavior behind the camera, and I am not saying that I do not think about privacy and respect both before and after the photo - but I am saying that when the moment appears, I take the photo first and have the internal conversation later. I don't think this makes me heartless. I think it makes me a photographer. And a photographer with the responsibility to ask myself later "was that OK?". Because sometimes it isn't.

Maybe the fact that I struggle with what is right means I am on the correct side of the line. Because there isn't really a good answer. There are those who would say that I, even with my concerns, my mental battle between what is right and what is truth, am still crossing the line. No, there isn't a good answer, but there is a right answer for me. I suppose, in the end, what matters is what I can live with, given my moral, social, behavioral parameters. If I feel that I am doing it for the right reasons, then I feel it is my responsibility to do it. And right now, the right reason is that I believe stories need to be told. With truth. But also with dignity and respect. And I believe that telling the story creates conversation, creates necessary dissension that leads to internal dialogue, creates a chance for people to see something and then decide for themselves if it's right or wrong, rather than being ignorant of the situation altogether. Whoever said "ignorance is bliss" was, perhaps, correct, but he or she was not a photographer.

And that's the true story.

This photo of a homeless man in Florida was taken with my i-phone from my car window. I was in the passenger seat and we were stopped at a red light when I looked out my window and saw him. It was one of those moments where I pulled out the phone, took the photo, and then later wondered if this was truth or exploitation. In the end, I believe it's truth. Though I am using it here to make a point. And some might argue that, in itself, is exploitation. What do you think? Comment!


Unknown said…
The photo you show as an example to me is raw, but honest. I see nothing wrong with this shot as it's showing a person, obviously homeless, yet it doesn't rob him of his dignity (yes, the down and out still have a shred of it and always the hope of redemption) because you did not show his face or anything that one could identify him by.

I think it is a photographers 'job' and lifeblood to capture images that speak to the human nature. Good or bad. I do think you have to ask your moral compass the hard questions. You have Jackie, and I commend you for that.

Photos are a bit like public 'gossiping' in ways. They can be harmful by opening someone up to ridicule or judgements, or at times helpful, bringing compassion and understanding, bringing something to light that others may never see otherwise.

I think there is no black and white on the issue. Only shades of gray. To me, I'd ask myself, if that was me or my loved one on the other end of the camera - am I okay with the image being shown? Is there a lesson greater than me to be learned? Perhaps. Of course, you will still make a judgement that would be right for you and wrong for someone else. Our human experiences shape how we see the world and how we react. Many of the people who are crying 'enough' are made uncomfortable by tragic images. I understand, it hits close. You see a photo of a mother with anguish as she bury's a child, perhaps, and think, what if that was me? It is too close to the bone to even fathom, so we get angry at the photographer. Maybe rightly so - but maybe the viewers, after their gut reaction can ask... how do we ease the suffering? how do we prevent these things? how do we make that person feel 'human' and part of 'us' again? Anyone with a loss understands the alienation - and that, perhaps could be the gift a photographers picture could give us - the gift of compassion and helping us all to move forward to better ourselves and our communities.

Sorry so long, just a few thoughts. I am moved by your struggle and alway amazed by your work.
Anonymous said…
I am one of those people who wants to see the good and the bad, blood, death, everything. If there is a disaster, I have to see the devastation before I can truly believe it was as bad as the news reporters are telling me.
Maybe I am just jaded from all the sights that I have seen in my life. We are all a part of this world and are all interacting there. That homeless man chose to be out in public broadcasting the fact that he is homeless, just like Paris Hilton walks out of a club drunk on a Saturday night broadcasting that she is out partying for the world to see.
Everyone has a cellphone camera these days. If you don't want your picture taken when you're out in public doing what you choose to do, then stay home.
Anonymous said…
Since you cannot see his face I see no harm in it.
Unknown said…
Ms. Givens -first, thank you for always commenting on my blog! I love that you follow it. Now let me ask you (and everyone) this - if you could see his face, would it make a difference?
Unknown said…
If it's legal to see and it is in public, it's legal to photograph, or at least it ought to be. I don't get too involved in the morals of the situation, I don't see that as my issue. I just take the photos I want to take.
Unknown said…
I think as a courtesy you can ask them if it was alright after the fact. I remember someone asked me in an airport if he could take my picture because he found me an interesting subject. I was flattered. (And no, it wasn't a come on either!) I don't think just because something or someone is in public that it IS public.

There is an amazing group on Flickr that I go to often, it's about taking a photo everyday of someone you do not know. The idea is to then go and ask them to tell you a story about their life. It is amazing and even more powerful than the stunning photos themselves.

You should have a lot of interesting subjects in Las Vegas - can't wait to see them.
Anonymous said…
"Maybe the fact that I struggle with what is right means I am on the correct side of the line."

I think so. Especially since it's impossible to say exactly where that line is! If you are in NY some time, Donald Margulies' new play, "Time Stands Still", considers the questions you ask...
Rich said…
I don't see anything wrong with your photo or think of you putting it on your blog in this context as an exploitation. I too struggle with photos of people, at least when the people are the subject of the photograph. For example, if they are spectators at an event that end up in the background or edge of the frame, I don't give that a second thought. But the shots I shared with you from Chicago of the people on the street I struggle with. They were the subject of the photos, I had so much fun capturing what is "life", the zoned out people with ipods, the various popular fashion trends, and the guy with a suitcase next to the bus looking lost. But these people have no idea I have a photograph of them or why I took it. Certainly I don't need their permission to do so in a public place, but at the same time I also don't have the right to exploit their image unbeknown to them. There are clear examples of exploitation and also a clearly safe option of keeping them for your eyes only, but no matter what there will always be a large gray area that will never be resolved. So I have to agree that you have to let your internal compass be your guide. Trust in your upbringing, your experiences to date, and everything else that has shaped you and draw your own line. Some will agree with you, some won't, and even you might erase the line and draw it somewhere else in the future. That's true of just about everything in life.
jo.frougal said…
I get what you're saying. I take lots of photos, too, for my job. I've had to refuse requests for uploads of kids' school/church performances on fb and social networking sites out of respect for the kids' safety and privacy. It's difficult explaining to people. Many are not even aware of the internal debate that goes on in our minds.
I couldn't agree with you more - you draw your parameters and the fact that you have that inner voice shows your conscience is alive and well. ;)
gina marie said…
I think it is all in intention. What is the intention behind the photo. Is it to bring about awareness? Inspiration? Or is it used to embarrass or humiliate? I think one looking at the photo can see beyond the image to the intention.

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