Several months back I read an article in PDN about a woman who was doing a photo project on a pregnant teenager just out of foster care who was being abused. One thing saddened me about this article, which I'll get to in a minute. First, let's talk about ethics in photojournalism. Ethics in photojournalism is a weird thing. Everyone would pretty much agree with most of the standards that have been set up (you can see them here). Everyone knows you shouldn't pay sources and you shouldn't except gifts or what not from people that might seek to influence your coverage. Yadda Yadda Yadda. The hard part comes when your subject is in need or is being beaten/abused. What do you do then?
In the particular article I am referencing the photographer was having a hard time coming to terms with this very issue. She had been invited to the house of her subject and her abuser would be there as well. The photographer didn't know what she would do if the abuser became abusive to her subject. The photographer didn't want her subject getting beat up but as a journalist she says she didn't want to interfere with the story by calling the police to intervene.
Later, when asked if she thought her presence was affecting the relationship between abuser and abusee she said:
"It crossed my mind. I think that photojournalists always struggle with that line - what's too close and what's close enought. I had a struggle with what my role was. I didn't want to change her situation, but felt bad that I couldn't. I saw her make these decisions that I wouldn't have made for myself." (emphasis added)
I am saddened by this photographers response. I understand the desire to want to be impartial. I understand we should portray a story as accurately as possible. I don't understand how you make a story more important than a person. Maybe this is the reason I have never really covered abuse. I wouldn't be able to be impartial in this situation. My heart cries out for these people. My camera must take a back seat and the person and their well being must become more important. Granted, there are times where you may not be able to help and you must let those who are more prepared to help come and do their job (I am thinking war, riots, etc.).
At what point do we throw out our "journalistic ethics" because we care so much for our subjects as people that we don't want to see them hurt? In our pursuit of telling a good story and being impartial are we allowing people to suffer? What is more important, a story or a person? Has photojournalism become callous?
Number 5 of NPPAs Code of Ethics says:
While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events
I believe we should add an asterisk. It would go something like this:
While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events*
*unless they are in desperate need and you can help