As I mentioned in my previous post, I had the great fortune to visit the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ War/Photography exhibit last month. A fellow English teacher went with me, and at one point in our journey through the exhibit, we discussed, in whispers, what is the responsibility of the photographer or photojournalist in these situations of war and danger?
This very question has been brought to the forefront again, in several forms, with the recent New York Post cover featuring a man who had been pushed onto the subway tracks about to be killed by a train. Much debate has swirled regarding what the photographer, whom I won’t name, should have done vs. what he did. Many deride the photographer’s claim that he started flashing his camera to alert the train driver to the problem on the track, cynically arguing that he was more interested in the “money shot” than preventing an unnecessary death. Others fault him for not rushing to help save the man. Well, what if the flash signal had worked and why didn’t the myriad of witnesses to the event rush to help the man? What if there was no time to help the man without causing harm to oneself? These are incredibly personal questions that all tie in to idea of whether a photographer’s responsibility is to those around him or his camera. The instinct to do one’s job vs. the instinct to help is a complicated tug-of-war, especially for a photographer whose job is to document such events. It doesn’t seem to be a question with an easy answer.
In reality most of the world doesn’t know really what happened on that subway platform. All we have are witnesses accounts and a now infamous photograph. And though we have no reason to believe that this particular photograph has been doctored in any way, plenty have. This raises another form of my initial question, which has, perhaps, a more straightforward answer. What is the photographer’s responsibility in showing us an image? Yes, it is to tell a story about an event, to humanize it, to make it real. But most importantly it is to tell us the truth. We as “civilians” rely on images to give us the truth of what is going on in other cultures and places, both in times of peace and strife. We trust photographers and photojournalists to show us the real story even more than straight reporters and journalists because “seeing is believing,” and if the images are manipulated, either through composition or editing, how can we trust the “truth” as it is presented?
In essence, is there a line crossed when the photographer chooses his camera over the people around him or composition over truth?
I posed this question to a photographer and art historian friend of mine, and I found her response to be quite thoughtful and interesting. She says, “The question you ask is an interesting one, and certainly one that has challenged the field of photojournalism. Is there a line that is crossed? Yes, there is.” Lindsay mentions Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism, as a prime example. Without him and others like him, we would not have photo documentation of the Civil War, several of which grace the walls of the War/Photography exhibit. Yet because of the technological limitations of photography at the time, Brady and his compatriots “staged the set,” so to speak, rearranging and redressing bodies of the fallen soldiers to create the most arresting photos possible for the viewing public. Lindsay says, “As a historian and photographer, I fundamentally have a hard time finding truth in these images. We are presented a body of work that had been passed off as accurate, when, in reality, these photographers had been thinking as artists. Yes, it is the artists’ job to capture the best composition possible, but it is the photojournalists’ job to present the facts. Here, we do not have the correct facts. Furthermore, one could say these photographers gave us images that fueled the propaganda of the time.”
She continues, “Now, today’s photo culture has changed ten fold from that of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We are able to capture action photos for instance. The body of work presented by modern and postmodern photographers inspires a sense of pathos in the viewer. That wouldn’t be achieved without the instantaneous shutter speeds our modern cameras have. It can be argued that in the 19th century, when photojournalism came about, that photographers were still trying to figure out the boundaries of this relatively new medium. Was photography a scientific or an artist device? It has blurred the line between art and science, and since found a strong footing in both. Does that mean the photographers who manipulated and set up compositions with dead soldiers are given a free pass for not only presenting us with inaccurate images of the dead, but also disturbing what could now be termed hallowed ground? I don’t think so.
My point is, when it comes to manipulating the facts, I find it difficult to approve of the methods. When presented with inaccurate imagery, how can we be certain the photographer has the proper means in presenting factual images to the photo viewing public? As a member of that public, I find it betrays my trust. I have the utmost respect for journalists and photographers who make careers out of risking their lives everyday so we can see what is going on in the world. But please, do us a solid, and give us the correct facts, not the so called money shot.”
I think that there is a reason the photojournalism community has struggled with these questions for years. It’s the same struggle of the reporting community: how far do you go to get the story and what do you do when life interferes? Without photojournalists, we would not have some of the most beautiful, horrifying, impacting, and important images of our time. Photographs can and have changed the course of history. But again, does the photographer have a responsibility beyond documenting that history? I struggle with the question, vacillating between adamantly declaring that we should always help and acknowledging the suddenness and inherent danger of such events and actions. I certainly can’t answer it in one blog post. But I think we, as photographers and as the viewing public, at least have a responsibility to continue the conversation.
Lindsay’s Recommending Reading and Viewing
The Atlantic’s archive of WWII photos http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/pages/ww2/
The National Archive’s collection of Matthew Brady’s photography
On Photography by Susan Sontag