Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ethics in Photography

Ethics in photography has been an especially hot topic of debate since it was introduced not only as an art form but as a component of mass media. One very powerful example of an ethical dilemma was brought up by Mrs. King. In 1993, Kevin Carter, a documentary photographer, came across an impoverished girl in Sudan struggling to crawl towards water where everyone else had headed. As he was observing her, a vulture landed near the girl. Carter waited for nearly 20 minutes for the bird to spread its wings in order for a good photograph, but it never did. After taking some photos anyway, he did not help the girl reach the feed station and instead left it to die. The controversy continued when in 1994 Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. Sadly, he committed suicide on July 27th, 1994 due to the extreme guilt that he felt for letting the Sudanese girl die when he knew he could have prevented it. His suicide note read, "The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist."
There have been many arguments that Carter’s lack of intervention on the girl’s behalf was fully justified. Before leaving on the assignment, he and the other photographers were instructed not to touch anyone for fear of epidemics. Furthermore, the ethical role and duty of a photographer is to observe and not interfere.
The general question is this: Does there come a point where these ground rules and ethical duties as a photojournalist should be ignored for the sake of a human life? Where does the standard of beneficence come into play? This also applies to nature photography. When is it (or is it) acceptable to help an animal struggling in its natural circumstances? For example, is it okay to help a newly hatched sea turtle make it into the ocean? Fair arguments can be made for both sides of these questions and ethics in photography truly resides in a “gray” area. What do you think?

Photo and information on Kevin Carter from:


Dani said...

From a personal perspective, I would have a really hard time (in fact, I honestly dont think i could do it) maintaining the professional distance from a story, subject, or event that I would hypothetically be covering if I were a journalist or photographer.
I dont see how someone could let another human being die, or for that matter, another animal if there were a chance to save it.

katrina337 said...

Quite honestly, I think professional distances should be upheld. The point is not to interfere with the society you are viewing. If you're getting into such a job, you need to be able to hold walls. If you interfere, you taint your portrayal of the society. Which would theoretically defeat the purpose, yes?

klneff said...

I have to say, this post wouldn't have been quite so effective without the picture... it's really disturbing actually...

I'm agreeing with Dani on this one. I understand the reasons for NOT helping the child in regards to the photographer's health and his professional duty, yet I feel that as a human being, there is a moral duty that should have over-ridden that of his "job."

By the sounds of it (in response to Katrina) he got the shot, and then left the child to die... From a professional view, if one saved the victims before the shot, it could definitly "taint" what others see. But keep in mind that he got the shot, and then walked away. Had he picked up the child and carried it to water, he wouldn't have destroyed his shot, in fact, wouldn't he had been supporting it further? The purpose of these shots (from my perspective) is to show hard situations that need help, something that may be inspired by the photo. If he helped the child, would he have not been doing exactly as his photo was doing--help these people survive?

Crista said...

I agree with Kate.

Despite the duties of a photojounalist, the question that comes to my mind is this: Which comes first, your job, or your humanity? The very fact that he later committed suicide shows that the factor of his nature as a human eventually overwhelmed the choice he had made based on his job.

Elliot Ross said...

I also have to side with Kate on this issue. To me, my ethical duties as a photographer are completely overridden by my moral duties. A person's life to me is much more important or meaningful than a job description.

Just to clear things up Kate:
While Kevin Carter waited for the vulture to spread its wings, the girl died. In fact, he describes her as taking one last shaking breath and then going limp. He then claims to have chased the bird off, as if that was any kind of redemption on his part.