Wandering and Wondering

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Photojournalism Ethics

Today I was out shooting some photos for this week’s photojournalism assignment. We were given a magazine article from which the picture had been removed, and we had to capture an appropriate photo to go with the story. The article, titled Se son fritte siamo fritti from L’espresso magazine, talks about a possible link between eating french fries and cancer. Basically, I needed some photos of people eating at McDonald’s.

For my previous assignments, pretty much everyone in my photos was aware that they were having their picture taken. This assignment, however, required some stealth photography. I generally feel uncomfortable doing this sort of photography, and I had my concerns over the ethics of such an assignment. In recent years photojournalists have had a lot of negative publicity (the worst being when the paparazzi were blamed for Princess Diana’s death) and I don’t want to add to this negative image.

With mixed thoughts in my head, I set out with my trio of cameras (SLR, camera phone and the inbuilt webcam on my laptop). I first visited the McDonalds inside the train station, which has a staircase leading to a raised eating area above the service counters. From the middle of the staircase I had a great view over the top of the service counters, so I got my camera phone out and started taking a few snaps. A staff member must have seen me, because I was kindly asked to move on.

I next visited a McDonalds outside on the street. I found a position on the opposite side of the street from the restaurant where I could sit and watch with my telephoto lens. I got a few good snaps of people leaving the restaurant, as well as a guy who was sitting outside eating, before I decided to venture inside. Putting my SLR away, which would attract far too much attention, I took out my laptop and started taking a few photos with the webcam while pretending to be working on something else. I obviously didn’t disguise myself very well, however, because a staff member cottoned onto what I was doing and made me delete all of the photos I had taken. Luckily I still had the ones I’d taken with my camera phone and SLR.

As I’m writing this blog article back at home, I’m still debating the ethics in my mind. Should I have asked the permission of every single person before taking their photo? If this rule was followed by every photographer, then the majority of the great photos that I saw in a recent World Press Photo exhibit wouldn’t exist.

As a compromise, I’ve decided that I’m not going to upload any of the photos from this assignment to my Flickr website. After all, I wouldn’t want a picture of myself eating McDonalds plastered all over the web. In the future, provided that I don’t have any more assignments like this one, I’ve also decided that the goal of my photography will be to try and highlight the positive aspects of people and places rather than negative aspects. I think this will be particularly important when I visit Africa in the second half of this year, because Africa is too often depicted in the media in a negative sense. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that atrocities such as wars, famine and natural disasters need to be photographed, just not by me. In the end, ethics is about what helps you get to sleep at night, and I personally sleep much better with a positive image in my mind.

For more information on ethics in photography, check out the following websites:
  1. Good summary of the basic ethics for photographers: http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/lester/writings/photoethics.html
  2. Interesting discussion on ethics in photojournalism: http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00AZHT
  3. Article about privacy and photography: http://photography.about.com/library/weekly/aa060399.htm

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