The good, the bad and photojournalism

April 18, 2007

by Eivind H. Natvig, photojournalist currently stationed in South Asia

The idea of everyone being a photographer is wonderful as long as we remember a few things: we live in an unpredictable world, and the value of our contemporary history being documented for the future is immeasurable. Events potentially being recorded as more people have fairly high quality camera equipment and great technical skills -at least in the western world- is an incredible development in itself. In the part of the world where I reside this is not the case: even the local media can be overshadowed by the expensive equipment of tourists walking by, hiding in expensive hotels when violence erupts.

My main concern with photojournalism today revolves around ethics. In my opinion to be able to call anything journalism, you also have to be able to explain how the material has been acquired. What is being emphasized in the photographs, and why? This is the essence of it all. There are many insecure professionals out there shooting what everyone else is photographing, but I am positive many do not even know why they point the camera where they do. How will the amateurs know better than professionals in the chaotic situations we face regularly?

There are also known incidents of “photographers” who promise changes in this part of the world to the people they shoot. They spread false hope and deceive people in crisis. It’s important to know what to say and how to behave, what to shoot and what not to shoot when dealing with human beings. Sadly a lot of foreigners I see here seem to forget that their subjects are human beings.

As far as I understand, the “citizen journalists” have spawned from a desire to get other news than what the established media feed them; personally I’m thrilled that people care. But I am not alone amongst professionals who have dedicated our lives to this, and we need to eat. Unfortunately, the same public that wants something else is not buying enough magazines. To some extent citizen journalists can offer some form of competition to the established photographers working in the western world. Free photographs available through FlickR for the sheer pleasure of being published as an amateur might tighten the budgets for buying photography or hiring photographers, but the potential for the viewing public to win from a photographer on every street corner is incredibly positive.

The greater events and catastrophes need compassionate, caring and professional individuals with a spine to tell stories without submitting to the propaganda and directives of playing parts – and not forgetting the human beings while doing so. Photojournalism no longer is about pointing and shooting, and objectivity has been pronounced dead and should be buried for good. But perhaps it should be about storytelling, rather than just registering an event.

We seekers of the truth should embrace others doing the same, as long as the individual rights are never forgotten.


One comment

  1. It may well be impossible, or irrelevant, to gauge the respective storytelling value or veracity of contemporary professional and non-professional photography. Moreover, the latter distinction might also not be useful with respect to Natvig’s ethical concerns. A possible response to these would be to observe that ethics, of themselves, have little to do with photography itself but more with how the individual chooses to act in their sociocultural context. Therefore, the issues Natvig raises relate perhaps to broader self-reflection by individuals and their societies, especially those with access to advanced technologies. Which is not to say that photography is not one of many visual media and cultural practices that might draw our focus, whether consciously or inadvertently, to the broader ethical dilemmas of our globalised world today.

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