On a Matter of Ethics

 
"The sad thing is, in today’s day and age, with the kind of practices we see, the starting premise of every image, is doubt."

“The sad thing is, in today’s day and age, with the kind of practices we see, the starting premise of every image, is doubt.”

Indranil Mukherjee discusses ethics in the ever-changing world of modern photojournalism.

Why am I a photojournalist? What drives us to document, chronicle, portray and report? And in this long road that is full of events, news and stories, are there moments where we may stumble down a slippery path, in a zone where our morals and ethics are tested?

Let me say at the outset that I am not being a crusader of ethics. Ethics in any kind of photography is a very personal choice. What’s okay, what’s not, where is the grey line, the answers to these questions are nuanced and everyone may have a different way of answering them? However, as a practising photojournalist, I do feel a little disturbed about certain changes that I have been seeing.

The media is in a state of flux. Print, broadcast, internet and agencies are seeing massive changes, and sensationalism is almost the norm, nowadays. I sometimes wonder if that’s the reason why some photographers tend to overstep the line.

But that’s not new, really. This profession throws us in the midst of some extremely dramatic and terrible stories. We have all covered blasts, terror attacks, tales of suffering. As photographers, we have to constantly question ourselves as to why we are photographing something in a particular way. Are we being honest to the situation? Are we being honest to ourselves? Are we manipulating something that disrespects the pursuit of truth in photojournalism? Are we manipulating someone’s feelings that disrespects them as individuals?

I remember this one time when I was photographing the funeral of Raman Lamba, a cricketer who had died in a very unfortunate accident, when a ball had hit him while he was fielding at forward short leg. I made several pictures from the beginning of the funeral, to his body being on Nigambodh Ghat, to his wife’s reaction.
A lot of people may even wonder how one photographs a funeral, it is one of those unwanted, and yet immensely sensitive and delicate situations that a photojournalist may need to portray. There are some moments when you just can’t shoot, and that’s when, as a human being, you have to stand back. Amidst her tears, there was a moment when Lamba’s wife broke down, almost falling over the body. The people around her requested us to give her privacy and dignity. I decided to stop shooting, to respect the sanctity of that moment. Not everyone did the same, another photographer got the shot.

I filed a photograph that had her crying, one of the quieter moments that had taken place before this incident. The photographer who had continued shooting was from an agency that had sent pictures to our newspaper. This was a time I was working with The Asian Age. They asked me if I had a photograph of the same moment. When I told them why I didn’t, the Chief Photo Editor managed to convince M J Akbar, the Editor, why we should avoid that photograph and publish mine. It may not have been as stark, but was a matter of respect.

That is where the importance of the ecosystem comes in. Photo Editors and Editors need to be on the same page as you. They need to be sensitive and supportive. A lot of stuff is printed nowadays on the pretext of theories that this is what people want, or this is what will make people take notice. Numbers seem to drive the kind of content that we put out. Firstly, that itself is wrong. Just because something is more populist or gets more people to react doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good reporting. Also, I wonder, is it really true that the common man will only react to a certain kind of reportage or information? I wonder, have we become that desensitised a society that we need crazy hype or a sensationalist photo to take notice and empathise?

Ethics, of course, has a lot more to it, than just what to shoot and what to publish. World Press Photo thought that Paul Hansen’s ‘manipulation’ was alright. At one level, one may say that if World Press Photo deems it okay, who are we to think otherwise? But I personally disagree. Curiously enough, even this year’s winning image (in which John Stanmeyer has photographed migrants on the shore of Djibouti city holding out their cellphones, attempting to capture a signal) makes me wonder: was he extremely and/or incredibly resourceful? Or just plain lucky? Maybe it is the latter, but the sad thing is, in today’s day and age, with the kind of practices we see, the starting premise of every image, is doubt.

Just to make an image seem more interesting, a lot of situations get set up. It may seem harmless enough as a lot of it is done for soft stories, but it’s still unacceptable. If an image is being staged because there is no other way of doing it, let the caption explain so. The problem is when we try to be too creative, when one starts thinking, “Achcha picture ban sakta hai.” We are photojournalists, not scriptwriters.

I’m hopeful that things will change if we keep raising this discussion, if we keep pondering about it. The biggest problem is that there is no grooming, not enough debate and conversation about things that matter. People assume that if they have a camera, they can shoot. Journalism of any sort, written or visual, is a long journey. And if you are in it for good, you have to know what you stand for. The grey area in the ethics of photojournalism is very thin and only you know whether you’ve crossed it or not.

There is a gradual erosion of ethics. And I don’t think it’s just about photography. It’s happening, all-round. I guess it’s time for everyone who’s a part of this world, and everyone who wishes to enter it, to ask themselves, whether we are here to sensitise, or sensationalise.

Indranil is a staff photographer with the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) and has been heading their photo department in Mumbai since 2005. With more than 15 years of experience, he has covered numerous national and international events.

Tags: AFP, ethics, Indranil Mukherjee, John Stanmeyer, Paul Hansen, photojournalism, Raman Lamba, World Press Photo