A Picture is Worth A Wrong Million Words

by Carte Blanche on April 23, 2017 - 5:32pm

In our increasingly digital age, photography has become popular and the role of photojournalists has grown in the media, however, “the special problems of violence and truth telling in wartime and issues of how to handle graphic images across media platforms receive virtually no attention” (Keith 2009). The English Oxford Dictionary defines photojournalism to be “the practice of communicating news by photographs...” (English Oxford Dictionary). A visual representation of a story can be a strong form of communication as a picture has the potential of humanizing what is photographed and can elicit a strong response from the viewer. Nonetheless, when viewed from several ethical standpoints, there exists a potential for harm through these pictures. Although arguments defending the use of photojournalism seemingly appear strong, the ethical frameworks of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics applied to the photographs “Starving Child and Vulture” by Kevin Carter, “Death of Alan Kurdi” by Nilufer Demir, “Face to Face” by Shaney Komulainen, “Fire Escape Collapse” by Stanley Forman and the photographic collection of domestic abuse in a relationship taken by Sara Lewkowicz all demonstrate possible negative impacts of this form of journalism.

Although it can be argued that photojournalists are bound by their code of ethics to report the truth and educate the population, they are using human life and misery as a means to an end. The existence of the photojournalist’s job relies on their photographing human pain, conflict and often death, and thus the very nature of their job is inherently unethical when assessed by the deontological framework of ethics. Focusing on the photograph “Starving Child and Vulture,” it is clear that the photographer Kevin Carter could have chosen to intervene in an attempt to save the starving child’s life however, “he [admittedly] spent 20 minutes waiting [for[ the bird [to] open its wings” in hopes of capturing a more aesthetically pleasing photograph (Time Magazine).  Furthermore, allowing a photograph alone to dictate the story will never pass the categorical imperative as a picture in isolation cannot present the objective and whole truth. What is left outside the frame of the picture may in fact allow for a completely different understanding of the situation. Moreover, graphic photographs of violence are meant to shock viewers and thus appeal to the human emotion, rather than human rationality. Using emotional appeal plays a role in preventing rational thought, which is needed to analyse the situation and act accordingly. By stripping humans of their rationality, photojournalism once again crosses the deontological ethical framework.

One may also argue that photojournalists have the moral responsibility to inform the public of the conflicts that are happening worldwide so that the public may play a role in changing the course of actions. One would think that by bringing the public’s attention to unjust acts and holding the powers in charge accountable, that perhaps the war can be ended and harm can be minimized. Nonetheless many examples exist of a violent and graphic photograph circulating in the media which, although arousing many, created little to no impact on the result of the conflict. The photograph taken by Nilufer Demir of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore is a prime example of this, as “...the total number of refugees and migrants who died trying to reach another country has increased by more than fifth in the last year,” and “a number of southern and eastern European nations actually [closed] their borders to Syrians” in 2016 (Devichand). Tima Kurdi, Alan’s aunt admitted that “the individual images and the emotion they inspire...distract the world from seeking a sober plan to end the underlying Syrian conflict” (Devichand 2016). Moreover, this constant barrage of shocking images that appear in the news media can actually cause an eventual desensitization of the viewers. Specifically for youth, “the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes exposure to violence in media...as a significant risk to health” and highlights that “media violence can contribute to aggressive behaviour, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed” (American Academy of Pediatrics 2001). By ignoring the harm that stems from these images and the lack of any actionable good results, photojournalists cannot maximize utility.

The act of a photojournalist taking pictures while people are suffering, mistreated and sometimes even killed without attempting to save their lives is quite unvirtuous. Though many argue that photojournalists are upholding the virtues of honesty, justice and integrity, they fail to recognize that they are also adhering to the vices of exploitation, deception and sometimes invasion of privacy. For example, the photograph “Fire Escape Collapse” taken by Stanley Forman shows a mother and daughter as they fall to the “sidewalk from a burning apartment building when the fire escape [gives] away” (Coates 2013). The photograph captures the last moments of the woman’s life and “one could argue that this picture is an invasion of privacy [which strips] away the dignity of [this] human’s death” (Coates 2013). Moreover, the photograph “Face to Face” by Shaney Komulainen exemplifies the potential for deception through photography. This photo shows a baby faced Canadian soldier face to face with an Ojibway student who came to support the Mohawk people during the Oka Crisis and documents the attempts of the Indigenous population to block the construction of a golf course on their ancestral ground. Rima Wilkes, a sociology professor at UBC who has studied the photo, claims that “ there are so many elements going on in the photo” that “you can read it” in “many [different] ways” (CBC 2015). She argues that “the indigenous man leaning in over the smaller soldier” with the “[his] weapon clearly visible” can easily be interpreted by the Canadian public as a violent armed indigenous man harassing the heroic peacekeeper soldier when in reality there were only about 50 Mohawks present in the conflict in face of 1500 Canadian soldiers (CBC 2015). Finally, the collection of photographs taken by Sara Lewkowicz of domestic abuse is a clear demonstration of exploitation. Lewkowicz chose to take photos of a man as he choked, hit and threw his wife against a wall instead of taking action to help protect the wife. The fact that she went on to win the 2013 Ville de Perpignan Remi Ochlik Award for her work demonstrates the sick reality of how she profited from the pain being experienced by an abused woman.  

In conclusion, although the job of photojournalists is celebrated and their work has the potential to stir change, end war and minimize harm, one must analyze the actual benefits brought by their photos and account for the negative impacts of photojournalism. Photos do not present the objective truth and thus provide viewers with a warped reality, which is a form of deception and thus cannot pass the categorical imperative nor be considered a virtue. Additionally, the vices of exploitation and invasion of privacy also exist through photojournalism. Publishing these graphic images does not always maximize utility as often no significant actions are taken as a result of the photo and viewers, especially young viewers can often be further harmed. Shocking, graphic photographs mostly appeal to the emotions, making the human less rational and thus less able to properly analyse the situation. Given that photojournalism is so prevalent  in our media today and can be used as a strong way to way to convince the public, it is important to understand the negative impacts.

Works Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Media Violence." Pediatrics 108.5 (November 1, 2001): n. pag. Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 01 Nov. 2001. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/5/1222>

CBC Radio. "One Photograph Shaped How Everyone Saw the Oka Crisis." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/reflections-of-oka-stories-of-the-moh....

Coates, Tyler. "When Does Photography Become an Invasion of Privacy? Perhaps Never." Flavorwire. Flavourpill Medua, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <http://flavorwire.com/410860/when-does-photography-becomes-an-invasion-o....

Devichand, Mukul. "Did Alan Kurdi's Death Change Anything?" BBC News. BBC, 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

English Oxford Dictionary. "Photojournalism." English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionary, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/photojournalism>.

Keith, Susuan, B. William Silcock, and Carol B. Schwalbe. "Journal of Mass Media Ethics." Journal Of Mass Media Ethics 21.4 (n.d.): n. pag. Taylor and Francis Online. Taylor and Francis Online, 17 July 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15327728jmme2104_3?needAcces....

Times Magazine, Ben Goldberger. "Starving Child and Vulture | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time." 100 Photos Time. Time, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2017. <http://100photos.time.com/photos/kevin-carter-starving-child-vulture>.

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