Text by Ho Ka Tat
A recent TVB drama series featuring a male reporter and a policewoman as the main characters drew my ire. In one scene, the reporter teaches a new colleague how to become a ‘good’ reporter, saying “Whatever happens, take the photo first. Even if you see a vulture devouring a dying child, just shoot.” The character is probably referring to a photo entitled The Vulture and the Little Girl, taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter, in which a vulture eyes an emaciated famine-stricken little girl from nearby, and it is not hard to imagine the fate that awaits the girl. The scriptwriters for the TV series must have thought that line of dialogue reflected the popular perception of reporters, but they most likely did not realize the agony and psychological pain that photo journalists who witness such devastating scenes suffer. After the famous photo that eventually got him a Pulitzer’s prize was published, Carter received widespread criticism for caring more about doing his job of taking pictures than saving the child, and committed suicide several months later.
The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 shocked the world, and the public was not only concerned with apprehending the perpetrators, but was also shocked by one of the photos that was published in the news. An Associated Press photo showed an injured Jeff Bauman with his legs blown off being rushed in a wheelchair by emergency responders and volunteers. Some readers thought the image was too graphic and should not be published. Associated Press editors must have debated the issue among themselves beforehand, for in the end they released two versions of the photo, the other a cropped version omitting Bauman’s bloodied lower extremities.
Standards for Selecting Bloody Photos
I asked Ming Pao photo editor and part-time university lecturer Kwok Hing Fai what criteria he uses for selecting graphic images. He told me that ideally, there should not be any censorship since the most important task of photographers is to faithfully record incidents, and as long as the photos are not manipulated, they should be published as is. However, in real life, editors have to take into account many other factors, such as whether readers (such as students) may find the images too unsettling.
New York’s Daily News chose to protect its readers in a different way. Its editor decided to use Photoshop to doctor the photo of a female victim of the Boston Marathon bombing taken by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki so that the image would look less bloody. When other photographers found out, they raised an outcry on the internet, decried this practice as being against journalistic ethics. Article 6 of the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association states that editing should not be done to “manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” What the Daily News editors did apparently contravened this code.
Protecting readers or self censorship?
The above examples illustrate how the media often practice self censorship in the name of protecting readers or for commercial reasons, thereby restricting the content of images. In Another Way of Telling, authors John Berger and Jean Mohr theorizes that photo journalism is a type of eye witness account rather than a way of story-telling, which is why photographs require captions to illustrate their meaning in order to overcome their inherent ambiguity. Berger and Mohr think that ambiguity is unacceptable in journalism but necessary in story-telling. I am not suggesting that the media become blood-thirsty, but since photojournalists’ duty is to provide eyewitness accounts, what they have recorded should be faithfully presented.
Moreover, censoring images does not mean that victims will cease to suffer. Even if Kevin Carter and the Sudanese girl survived, can thousands of other children affected by war and famine be spared? Can Photoshopping undo Jeff Bauman’s ordeal in the Boston Marathon bombing? In doing their jobs, do photojournalists not bear witness to events and caution, admonish, express concern and even attempt to save the world?
To shoot a picture or safe a life?
Associated Press Photographer Nick Ut’s fate is very different from that of Kevin Carter. During the Vietnam War, he photographed a girl named Kim Phuc as she was fleeing the scene of a napalm bomb attack. After taking the picture, Ut took Phuc to the hospital and helped her obtain treatment. Ut kept in contact with Phuc and visited her often in the hospital, and they became friends. If you ask me what photo journalists should do when faced with the choice of whether to shoot a picture or save a life, I would reluctantly but honestly reply that it depends on the situation. There are no hard and fast rules. Photo journalists are news professionals but they are also human beings. Taking pictures is not the only thing they could do, but at the same time they are not professional medical workers, and may not have the knowledge or ability to recue people in an emergency.
American photographer and writer Diane Arbus once said, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of the photographic co-operative Magnum Photos, wrote a memo addressed to all photographers that says, “I wish to remind everyone that Magnum was created to allow us, and in fact to oblige us, to bring testimony on our world and contemporaries according to our own abilities and interpretations…When events of significance are taking place, when it doesn’t involve a great deal of money and when one is nearby, one must stay photographically in contact with the realities taking place in front of our lenses and not hesitate to sacrifice material comfort and security.” I hope photojournalists will continue to bear witness for humanity and contribute to writing our history.
This article first appeared in Ming Pao (28 April 2013).
Editor: Choi Hiu Tung
Translation: Simon Chung