Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Is Photojournalism Betrayal?

 “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns – when the article or book appears – his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living” writes Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer.

I share this view of journalism as treachery, and I think it is also true for photojournalism. Here’s how the British photographer Don McCullins in his autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour justifies his own: During the Cyprus conflict in the 1960's, he entered a house where he found three dead men of whom he took pictures, when suddenly the door opened and people came in, among them a woman, who, he later learned, was "the wife of the youngest man. They had been married only a few days. I'm in serious trouble now, I thought. They will think I have trespassed in their house. I had already taken photographs. It wasn't just trespass in the legal sense I had been guilty of, for I had trespassed on death, and emotion too. The woman picked up a towel to cover her husband's face and started to cry. I remember saying something awkward like — forgive me, I'm from a newspaper, and I cannot believe what I'm looking at. I pointed to my hand with the camera in it, asking for an invitation to record the tragedy. An older man said, 'Take your pictures, take your pictures.' They wanted me to do it ...“

Really? I’m not too sure about that. To me it seems more likely that these people had simply quite some other things on their minds.

Photojournalism is often nothing but voyeurism – and thus morally indefensible. We all know that. „A man gets his leg blown off taking me to pee, and then I’m supposed to shove a lens in his face and shoot? No way. Maybe I’m not made for this job“ writes Deborah Copaken Kogan in Shutterbabe. Who then, I wonder, is made for such a job?

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