Ethics or Aesthetics: The problem with media photography

Who says the lens never lies? As images play an ever stronger part in our engagement with world events, Connie Fisher explores the fine line treaded by photojournalism between communication and exploitation and urges us not to fall victim to the art of manipulation.


The photographer of this Israeli airstrike on Beit Lahia, Gaza, in 2009, has managed to turn a disastrous moment of panic into an impressive work of art. © Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images, under Creative Commons licence.

The live news icon on my computer’s home screen scrolls through headline images, to which my immediate reaction is frequently a feeling of discomfort. This is not due to the content of the news articles, but rather to something I feel is integrally problematic with the photos themselves. There are images of lonely, tattered children backed by Syrian refugee camps, which are hauntingly beautiful, and carefully composed shots of women lifting their hands to the sky amid the rubble of the Gaza conflict, which remind one of a work of art. In many of the widely distributed images of world issues, there seems to be an incongruous and unsettling combination of reportage and art.

We can assess photography according to a scale of purpose and context. At one extreme is journalistic photography, which we believe solely intends to accurately represent the reality of a situation. At the other extreme is photography as an art form, creating images of what we might call beauty. This can be created pre-capture through the composition of the photograph, the content of the frame, or the quality of the image, and also in post-capture digital editing.

The difficulty comes when an image doesn’t sit neatly on either side of the scale. We trust the media to provide us with objective images, to act as our eyes in that which we cannot witness first-hand. However, since the very introduction of photography, we have been aware of its ability to manipulate reality, only ever really able to produce one fixed, time-captured viewpoint, never ‘the whole picture’. High-quality modern cameras even have the ability to enhance reality to the point where life looks clearer through a camera, where people look more beautiful.

My concerns in this area were amplified dramatically when I watched Lisa Kristine’s TED talk about her time as a photographer of modern-day slavery, with the aim to raise awareness for the NGO Free the Slaves. Fast-forward to 0:56, 5:10, 5:26, 10:45, 11:50 or 12:50, and you will see what can only be described as beautiful images, of people whose lives we can only attempt to comprehend. As well as carefully composing her shots, Kristine has also edited contrast and colouring, mediating what she claims to be the truth into a warped version of reality, only accessible through the camera. I do not deny that these images are extremely powerful, and I admire Kristine’s determination to spread awareness, but I cannot help but feel that there is something fundamentally problematic with combining reportage and art in this way, denying an audience a more objective representation.

What we must ask here is what is most important to Kristine: the quality of the image, or what she is trying to raise awareness about? Do the camera and her images help the issue, or do they stop her from helping further? Try to put yourself in the shoes of one of her subjects, staring down the camera lens, being flashed time and time again until the photo is perfect: a photo that will be carried away from you on a camera worth money you can only dream of, a photo that will be heavily edited into an aesthetic object and then used to speak for you, a photo you will never see. Is this a vindication of rights, or a violation?


© Kevin Carter

The most famous instance of this is Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a starved African child crouched on the ground while a vulture gazes at it from behind. Although highly acclaimed, Carter also came under fire for the photo, criticised for taking the picture rather than helping the girl: for winning a prize at the expense of a dying child. Although unproved, his suicide three months after winning the award has often been linked with Carter’s guilt over the photo. Viewing the image is a difficult mixture of admiration for the photograph and horror at the content: it is difficult to know what to feel about the content of the image, but also about the making of the image itself.

There is, of course, no easy answer to this problem. We rely on media photographs to show us what we cannot see, to help us understand situations and to raise our awareness of global issues, but we must also be constantly aware how vulnerable it makes us to rely on images that will always have been created, to some extent, subjectively. Even those images snapped quickly for the latest news report are still the result of a series of decisions of both photographer and editor over what to include in the picture, and then which pictures to publish in order to make us feel a certain way towards the story’s content. We must always look on with care, and awareness of the power of the camera to favour aesthetics at the expense of ethics.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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