The ethics of images: consciously stirring consciousness

The ethics of images: consciously stirring consciousness

Fri, 18/10/2019 - 16:40


Awareness. Images are essential for showing humanitarian crises. We ponder what ethical limits should apply.

Kim Manresa, a leading photojournalist, says a good report needs a guiding thread rather than just showing a few isolated bloody images. This is an opinion shared by many other photojournalists working to illustrate human injustice, moving away from sensationalism and instead stirring consciousness to prompt change. A thread, a story, a complex reality behind a photograph: this is what should be transmitted by any image dealing with refuge, migration, human trafficking, war and conflict.

But, we wonder, is it possible to portray these complex and often harsh realities without trampling on the dignity of the people suffering them and to avoid showing them in situations which we want to denounce?

“We share the contradictions and decide if we publish a photo or not”

Red lines and shared decisions

The Federation of NGOs in Catalonia, Lafede, devotes a fair part of the communication section of its code of ethics to the question of images and sets out a series of guidelines. For instance, it recommends treating people with maximum respect for their will and their dignity and even avoiding images depicting unequal relationships or which could be interpreted as paternalism or superiority. In the general sphere, article 9 of its code of conduct for professional journalism also states that: “Unjustified damage to individual’s dignity through word of images, even beyond their death, contravenes journalistic ethics”.

Photojournalist Edu Ponces, from the Ruido Photo association, questions the term ‘dignity’ though, stating: “this concept, as with the concept of ethics, is very subjective. Rather than using labels or having rules and a list of unpublishable images, what we do is discuss them, share their contradictions with the collective and decide whether we publish a photo or not. We decide as a collective. We haven’t got any red lines”.

Laia Gómez, from the same association, affirms that an image shouldn’t be judged by itself: “The context in which it was taken and in which it will be published needs to be understood. It’s not the same an image appearing in an exhibition panel, with an explanatory text next to it, as illustrating a news item with a loaded headline”.

One example of this is a photo Edu took of a Honduran mother embracing her dead son and which they decided to publish: “We had our doubts, but in the end we decided that if that was constantly happening, teenagers dying every day, that was how it should be explained. Had it been a one-off situation, we wouldn’t have done it”, explains the photographer.

Collective decisions or debate is the system which has also been adopted by other groups such as Càmeres i Acció and Fotomovimiento. Both have spaces for sharing doubts and concerns when it comes to deciding whether to publish or not. In the words of Fotomovimiento’s Mònica Parra: “We live in constant contradiction. Sometimes we decide not to publish images, we think about the photos we wouldn’t like to be taken of us in the same situation, trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, visualising ourselves there”.

“As with most cases we film, we don’t get the cameras out until we feel comfortable and there’s an atmosphere of mutual trust”

Complexity in images

David Fernández, from Càmeres i Acció and part of the NoBordersFilms collective, basically produces audio-visual material such as documentaries, which could be regarded as an easier means of telling stories than photographs. But in his opinion, rather than the means, the key lies with how the narrative is approached. He explains that in his view, and that of his collective, the way to be true to a reality is to delve into it, experience it and be a part of it. An example of this is the latest project by NoBordersFilms, a documentary about the Xatila neighbourhood in Beirut. The film-makers have been living side by side with Palestinian refugees there: “as with most cases we film, we don’t get the cameras out until we feel comfortable and there’s an atmosphere of mutual trust. That can happen in 4 or 5 days or after a few weeks. After that we agree on what and how with the people willing to be filmed”. Ruido Photo and Fotomovimiento coincide here, producing their projects over time and taking an in-depth approach, always trying to show the complexity of the situation, because “beyond the emotional impact, we can offer tools and elements for developing reflexive thinking and constructing a critical vision”, notes Laia Gómez.

Photoactivism and photojournalism

In an effort to build this critical vision, photojournalism becomes photoactivism. The Fotomovimiento collective describe it thus: “The difference between a photojournalist and a photoactivist is that the first reaches a certain place and takes photographs, working to sell their images. Photoactivists, if we wish, stay there, not depending on anyone, being part of events, becoming integrated and forming part of the protests, taking a stance and taking our own decisions”. But what happens when that position leads to a dilemma about whether to intervene and help out the people around you or take photos that could denounce the situation?

“You end up forging relationships, sometimes too close, with people you can’t help as much as you’d like to”

False dilemma between intervening or taking photos

The case of refugee camps is paradigmatic: when professionals arrive to take photos and denounce the situation of refugees, they often find that hands-on help is needed for daily tasks, putting up tents or transporting food and clothing.

David thinks that these two things go hand in hand, as its precisely about becoming somehow involved, and providing a helping hand is a necessary part of producing an accurate account. He adds: “It’s unavoidable”. According to Mònica, “arriving and being able to offer guidance and support is one of the things that makes us ‘human’, but it’s also a tie that can hurt us more, as you end up forging relationships, sometimes too close, with people you can’t help as much as you’d like to and, going back to the invasion of privacy, it sows further doubt in you. I stopped taking photos for nearly a year because one day, while I was in a tent with one of the families in the Idomeni camp, a photographer came past and took a photo of us. I questioned our role there, thought it over for a long time, and in the end I reached the conclusion that we have to take photos to be able to denounce it. But without ever losing respect for the other”.

Laia and Edu, from Ruido Photo, are in no doubt that their task is to show the world images which can stir people’s consciousness. They explain: “Since the Kevin Carter photo, of the boy with the vulture behind him, it seems as if being able to save somebody is often in our hands, but that’s not the case. Of course, the person has to come before the photo, but the thing with the camps is more as support as collaborators, and we have to be careful here, as the professional organisations working on the ground (Open Arms, Red Cross etc.) warn that volunteers can’t be sent unless they’re professionals at the tasks required. One thing is helping put up a tent, but depending on types of logistics tasks and psychological support, they have to be professionals.

Constantly questioning images

From the racist reports in National Geographic (which ended up recognising them a year ago) to the internal debate and contradiction of journalist activists, there’s a whole grayscale within which certain journalists work, some more rigorously and others more sensationally. The need for immediate information and the existence of a dominant discourse on phenomena such as immigration, poverty and armed conflicts means that important media channels often stick with the images which have the most impact, without applying many ethics filters. But the emergence of new alternative media, which moves away from quick and superficial analysis, paves the way for the issue of the ethics of images to be at the heart of the debate.

This Refuge City website, in keeping with the need to cover the reality of refuge from a critical and considered perspective, therefore uses the Sueños Refugiados project for the photos on its home page.

Images by Ruido Photo, Fotomovimiento and Càmeres i Acció.