The balance between ethics and truth in photojournalism, documentary and street photography can be challenging. It’s too easy to score cheap points from another human being’s grief – mutilation, deformity and suffering. But taken to extreme we have to balance that not photographing certain subjects can make them disappear from the social record.
Death Porn in Photojournalism
There has been a lot of discussion among photojournalists over the last few years about the trend towards prize winning photographs being death porn. The more shocking, the more effective. Often these horrendous images are used to push an underlying political or social agenda beyond the photographer’s intention in taking the shot.
To that end, we need to look to the publication and social expectation of this type of graphic violent or disturbing image. Perhaps, photojournalist death porn feeds into the greater pool of graphic murder and violence that our society commands as entertainment.
But it’s a difficult line to assess – do we stop talking about the rape and murder over minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo and focus solely on positive stories? Or, do we try to push a balanced approach? And, how do we deal with a society and a business model that demands these images?
The Social Window of Documentary Photography
At the same time we have a responsibility to document the world for what it is – often violent, unfair and contentious. All too often, banal and everyday. There is a place for those photographers who document the shape and texture of life for what it is (in their own worldview).
That being said, it would be ignorant to believe a documentary photographer doesn’t bring a personal agenda and motivations to the documentation of any subject matter. Because what is left out of a frame is as important to a photograph as what is included – it’s the difference between a snapshot of Aunt Sally and a photograph of Aunt Sally.
So the question becomes… in recording our documentary of life do we ignore the less fortunate? Do we only document the nice places that give us warm fuzzy feelings?
The Grit of Street Photography
Again, it’s too easy to walk out onto any city street and take photographs of the homeless, the disfigured, war veterans or drug addicts. Again, it’s an exploitative situation where the photographer who walks away can monetise or socialise another person’s grief.