The ethics of photojournalism
- Published: 18 April 2010
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How can photojournalists employ the unique interactivity of the internet to communicate complex stories with a global audience? How can we give voice to the human subjects of our photographs, and context to their situation? How might photojournalists use our work to facilitate conversation between the observer and the observed? Benjamin Ball reports.
My online photojournalism project The Uprooting is in many ways a clumsy and limited response to these questions of ethical practice, but – for me, at least – it is an important step, and the production process has generated new ethical and practical questions that I would not otherwise have considered.
One of the most constant and valid criticisms of photojournalism is its tendency to convert complex events, and even people into a single representative image.
Often, the audience will have no other points of comparative reference (though this is decreasingly the case in our image-saturated digital environment), and the symbolic power of the photographer – the power to represent and frame reality for others – is therefore profound.
One of the ideas behind The Uprooting is enabling human photographic subjects to tell their own stories with their own voices. That is, to represent themselves.
But this ambition is inevitably truncated by the limited time and energy of the photojournalist (who is now acting at least as much as a curator, or author, as she is as a photographer), and also by the demands of the online platform.
I recorded nearly 30 hours of interviews with the people who appear in The Uprooting, and with the academics, community leaders and journalists who I interviewed to provide greater context to their situation.
From those many hours, I had to condense peoples’ stories into one minute sound bites; I had to crop and edit, and piece together a mosaic of voices that might successfully communicate what each person wanted to say, but also the deeper truths that illustrate what it means to be forcefully displaced in Colombia.
My symbolic power, once again, is great. In fact, I have wondered at times if my symbolic power is not even greater than that of the traditional photojournalist, for I am now in charge of not only images, but the voices that will be attached to those images. There are several cases where this is particularly so.
The third last photograph in The Uprooting is of a 15-year-old prostitute, who I have named ‘Isabelle’. The image is cropped to protect her identity, but thinking back on the many photographs I have seen published of young girls in similar situations – such as Spanish photographer Kim Manresa’s beautiful work, Infancia Robada, depicting vulnerable street kids and young prostitutes in Brazil – I wonder if I would have felt as compelled to crop the photo if her voice was not attached to it.
The cropped image maintains Isabelle’s fragile, girlish body, but the full image – with her looking directly into the camera, almost as though speaking to it – is considerably stronger.
I wanted to publish Isabelle’s face, but opted to tread lightly. In the afternoon we spent together, I explained how the image and audio would be used, and she consented. It only occurred to me afterwards, however, that Isabelle may never have used the internet, and may have no comprehension of its potential reach.
Isabelle is telling her story to the world, and it was important that her story be heard. Thousands of displaced girls and women prostitute themselves – or are prostituted – to help feed their families. The least I can do, it seemed to me, is protect Isabelle’s identity.
There are many other children who appear in The Uprooting. The displaced population in Colombia is young – the average age is less than 18 – and my photos represent this.
But speaking with children about their experiences was not something I felt comfortable, or qualified to do. That’s why, in almost all cases, a photograph of a child has a testimony of an adult relative.
A similar issue presented itself with Colombia’s indigenous population. Very few indigenous women or children speak fluent Spanish, and I was therefore limited to speaking with indigenous men. That is why, again, photos of indigenous women and children are accompanied by male testimonies.
Producing The Uprooting has forced me to constantly probe my own approach to journalism, and I am thankful to those who have questioned my practice along the way.
The future of photojournalism – and journalism more broadly – can only ever be what we are doing right now, which makes reflexive, critical practice all the more important. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m pretty happy to be surrounded by so many good questions.
Benjamin Ball is a documentary photographer, writer and new media producer based in Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Practices at the University of Technology Sydney and uses his spare time to teach his four-month old son to roll from one side to another. His work can be viewed at The Uprooting.
Image: Courtesy of Benjamin Ball.