Photography: The Ethics of Interference


Image by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

A while back, a post on a Facebook page called UpWorthy caused uproar. UpWorthy is the kind of page that links to anything remotely inspirational, humorous or of the heart-string tugging nature and waits for the ‘likes’ to roll in. This post, however, divided opinion. It was a photographic essay which showed the relationship between a young mothers and violent partner (see the essay, which has recently been updated,here)

This powerful visual story triggered a backlash against the award winning photographer who shot it, for not putting down her camera and intervening in the assault which took place against the woman.
I remember a backlash that occurred after an episode of Meerkat Manor (Yes, it was a reality TV show about Meerkats, and it was excellent) in which a baby meerkat was left out in the desert to die. The TV crews could not save the meerkat, as there is a clause in their contract about not interfering with the course of nature. Of course there is a vast canyon of difference in between a baby meerkat that became separated from its tribe, and an incident of domestic violence, but the concept is the same: reality is reality. We may not like it, we may not want to be exposed to it, but it is there.

And having said the latter, even our ‘reality’ is 100% manufactured. Take as your example the epidemic of ‘Reality TV’ shows, whilst some scenes may not be scripted, I can guarantee you that there will be more staging, editing and manipulation than you would like to think. We find ourselves in a peculiar 21st century paradox of having more and more access to peoples’ ‘Real’ lives via social media, but also these presented lives becoming increasingly curated.

If photographers are employed as such, isn’t it their duty to act as such - without letting complicated human emotions come in the way of their profession? The very definition of the word ’professional’ might imply a detached and unemotional nature, with the focus on “doing the job.” I would argue a distinction between, for example, war photographers employed by a media corporation and people filming events on iphones. Of course, video evidence can be very useful, but in the UK most public areas are under CCTV surveillance anyway and for minor incidents the police may never get involved. Without encouraging people to endanger themselves, I would argue that the ‘amateur’ videographer or photographer has more of a duty to intervene in a situation that they think could be easily resolved (for example, “Happy-Slapping”, possibly one of the vilest trends to be spawned from the noughties).

The photographer must ask themselves this: am I out to capture reality as it is - no matter how nasty? Or am I out to capture reality insofar as the world is comfortable with it. The truth is that there are innumerable atrocities being carried out around the world every day, and even with the advent of mass media, many of them go unseen. Our sensitivity to death is a relatively new phenomenon, with a pervasive fear of violence becoming the norm in a society in which everyone can be a target - whether that be via domestic abuse, or transnational terrorism. In a world where we can no longer use the excuse ‘But that’s happening so far away from us,’ the integrity of photojournalists to bring us the full story is more crucial than ever.


  • Share:

You Might Also Like