The routine photo that made me re-examine my ethics, and made me a better journalist

I’ve always been fairly set in my ways with journalism ethics. I’m a bit of a purist and don’t really believe in any grey areas. Whether it’s written or photographic journalism, you just tell the truth. Don’t mislead. Don’t embellish. Don’t hide relevant facts. I’m not saying my journalism is always perfect, but my ethics always are. At least, that’s what I thought…

A couple of months ago, I took a photo that made me re-examine my ethics. It was for a story about a local college that had thrown out some filing cabinets, but had left student records inside, an apparent breach of confidentiality and security. Myself and a reporter went along, found the cabinets, and took some photos. Here’s the one that was published:

College student paperwork 4 of 6

Okay so nothing ethically questionable about that. But obviously that photo didn’t show that the cabinets contained student records, so I’d also taken a photo that would do that. I opened a drawer, took out a few of the records, and arranged them for this photo:

College student paperwork 1 of 6

At the time, this didn’t seem at all wrong to me. In fact I think it was a day or two later that I started to think about it, and question if it was the right thing to do, and it didn’t take much thought to realise that I’d slipped up.

You see, posing people for group photos has been such a routine part of my job, that it felt totally natural to just pose a few pieces of paper. It wasn’t meant to be misleading or dishonest in any way. But suppose that photo had been published? And suppose people thought the student records had been left lying on top of the drawer like that? It would make the college’s negligence seem far worse.

The problem was that I’d been thinking like a photographer instead of a journalist.

A couple of years ago, when I was working at a local paper, one of the reporters was doing a story about rubbish that had been left scattered along a roadside, and the Council hadn’t cleaned it up. I went and took photos, which showed that there was definitely rubbish there, but not a lot. When I got back to the office and uploaded the photos, the reporter came and asked me to go back, gather all the rubbish together to make it look worse, and take more photos. Obviously I refused, and pretty soon there was an ethics debate in the middle of the office, before another photographer said he didn’t have a problem with it so he’d go and fake the photos.

Now that may sound like a clear ethical breach, but in his view it wasn’t, because he intended to caption the photos as an ‘illustration’ rather than a true photo. Which is fine in theory, but anyone who works in newspapers knows that captions all-too-often get changed or missed out entirely, so it was totally predictable that the photo might run without the ‘illustration’ disclaimer, and readers would be mislead. On the other hand, if he didn’t take the fake photo in the first place then there was zero chance of readers being mislead. So he shouldn’t have taken it. Same as I shouldn’t have staged the filing cabinet pic. The point is that there’s no grey area — you can’t circumvent good ethics with good intentions.

Not long after the filing cabinet incident, I saw a quote from an interview with a photographer, saying how she never directs her subjects because that in itself creates a dishonest photo, so she will only ever photograph what is happening naturally in front of her camera. (Annoyingly, despite spending most of an afternoon searching for this quote, I can’t find it now. But it doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s the point she was making that’s important.)

The message behind that quote stuck in my head, and it became relevant a few weeks later when I went to photograph a man who has had both legs amputated and is trying to get the Council to install a disabled bathroom unit for him.

When I went in to the man’s house, he was smoking. Now I hate being around cigarette smoke, so I was about to ask him if he wouldn’t mind putting his cigarette out while we were doing the photos. But I remembered the quote about not directing people, so I hesitated for a moment and thought it through. I’m certainly no expert, but I do know that smoking can often lead to people having circulation problems that result in limb amputation, so maybe it would reflect badly on this man if people reading the paper see that he smokes? But conversely, what if the amputations were nothing to do with him smoking, and showing him smoking in the photos would give people the wrong impression? I wondered if I should simply ask him. But no, this is why journalism ethics should always be black and white: I knew that I should just photograph what was in front of my camera. My photos should simply tell the truth, not a politicised version of the truth. If he was smoking then my photos should show him smoking.

As I was about to start taking photos, the man’s wife told him to put the cigarette away, and he promptly did. That’s fine. That decision was nothing to do with me, so I just got to work on the photos.

The man was bed-bound, so instinctively I felt that the best photo would be a wide angle shot showing him sitting on the bed, exactly where he was when I came in to the room. But as I prepared to take the shot, I noticed that he had an ash tray, pack of cigarettes and lighter on the bed, and I was about to suggest that he move them. But again, no. That would be staging the scene again. So perhaps I should take tighter shots to not show the ash tray? No, because I’d already decided what was journalistically the best photo, and it was a wide angle. Changing the composition of the photo to ‘hide’ something would be just as bad as Photoshopping it out later.

I photographed what was in front of my camera, and this was the published shot:

Tom Burns amputee needs home improvements 1 of 7

Now I’ll be honest, I don’t like the photo. But it’s also a photo that I’m proud of, because even as I took it, I knew that it marked a turning point in my career and I had become a better journalist. Frankly I’d much rather take an average photo that is ethically sound than a better photo that may risk misleading people.

Over the past 20+ years I’d learned to trust that my ethics would always guide me to make the right decision, but I guess we all need to check ourselves occasionally. I know now that if I was covering the filing cabinet story again, I wouldn’t make the same mistake, because I’ve re-programmed my brain to think like a journalist first and a photographer second.

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One thought on “The routine photo that made me re-examine my ethics, and made me a better journalist

  1. I’m the kind of photographer that even feels bad about moving a little twig in order to get a cleaner shot of a mushroom… However, in case of the man with the ashtray, I probably would have casually asked whether there was anything in the room that he’d rather not see ending up on the photograph. This way, you’re not directing him but you’re just reminding him to think about his “privacy”. The man is posing anyway; your presence has already influenced his facial expression so there’s really nothing wrong with him extending that personal expression to what’s on the bed.
    Also, I’d probably not have refrained from asking him to put away the cigarette if it were for personal reasons (instead of aesthetic reasons); acting like a different person than you really are would be just as “fake” as directing the subject itself. You were there, your presence has already influenced the situation so if you want to make a truthful photograph, be truthful, be yourself.

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