Ethics in Photojournalism: by Becky Patterson

It’s true that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, and that’s why newspapers splash their front pages with large photos that are far more likely to capture audiences than the best crafted words. Photos not only augment the story and lend credence to the written word; they also draw attention to the story with their starkness and candor. And although it’s not something that we like to admit, when it comes to making news and headlines, it’s the pictures of natural disasters and people struggling to cope with them that steal the show and grab the largest and most prominent space. In fact, the more the photo tugs at your heartstrings, the more valuable it is.

But as both recent and past events have shown us, there is always a thin line between shooting great pictures and following ethics in photojournalism – the recent earthquake in Haiti has created photo ops for people who want to show the world the extent of the destruction that has ravaged this tiny island; at the same time, it has raised serious questions about the moral responsibilities of people who are in a position to help those affected, but who choose instead to shoot photographs of them. There was one of a woman trapped in rubble from below her waist, with a few other affected and bleeding people standing by. Should the photographer have helped her first, or was he just doing his job by snapping this picture?

If ever a picture had to convey to the world the misery of the Haitian people, this is it. Yet, there is something about this photo that seems wrong, just as there was of the one of Omayra Sanchez taken by photographer Frank Fournier, hours before she died after being trapped under concrete and water for days together. The teenager was one of thousands who were killed by an erupting volcano and the resultant landslides that wracked Columbia in 1985.

But when you hear Fourier’s side of the argument, you understand what he means when he says that there was no way he could help the girl physically, and that the only thing he could do for her was tell the world of her story and her plight. The photographer in Haiti too was probably trying to capture the destruction as best as he/she could through the eyes of their camera because there was nothing they could do to help the woman trapped under the rubble.

Photojournalists are not as bad as people make them out to be; they’re not vultures who go around scavenging for photographs of people who are dying in order to make a fast buck and find their way into the spotlight. They just happen to be at the right place at the wrong time. Besides, they endanger their lives too in search of such photographs because nature is very unpredictable.

Ethics are dicey in any business, and when it comes to photojournalists, I think we must give them the benefit of the doubt when they shoot such pictures.

Becky Patterson is a professional photographer who created Become A Photographer for the simple purpose of explaining to individuals the process of becoming a professional photographer. Become A Photographer is the only nonprofit site dedicated to providing students with information on how to become a photographer. To meet that goal, we provide answers to students most frequently asked questions, as well as maintain the only complete database of colleges or schools that offer accredited photography degrees in the US.


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  1. Given the circumstances if the opportunity to help a person is available my ”personal ethics” demands that I help that fellow human being. Pictures should not be made at all costs IMO. Some PJ act like vultures on occassion. That said sometimes the best way to help is to publisise by produce images that people cannot ignore. It really is a tightrope that we walk..

  2. The way I see it, photojournalists perform a service of their own: They tell a story that they had the privilege (or sometimes the misfortune) of witnessing. “When does photography become a voyeuristic response to events?” is a question that has been on my own mind lately and I appreciated reading your insights.