Ethics in PhotoJournalism

The prezi below is one of the lessons about Photo Journalism in my Media Laws and Ethics class at the University of San Jose-Recoletos. Due to “student-demand” (clamor of some students), i’ve extracted this slide from my secret room in this blog and published it here.

I began by telling the class that since there was no Code of Ethics of the local press photographers in the Philippines, so i decided to dig on the National Press Photographers Association’s (in the USA) Code of Ethics (Slides 1 – 5).

Next slide shows the images from the short-film “One Hundredth of a Second” which i made a film-showing and discussion with the class.

I zoomed in to the third image at far left in Slide 7 showing a 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter (13 September 1960 – 27 July 1994). Carter photographed a starving toddler in Sudan in 1993 while the latter was crawling to reach a feeding center. The picture appeared like Carter was waiting for the vulture to prey on the dying toddler. Carter was heavily criticized for taking pictures and didn’t extended a helping hand to the child. He explained that it was his call of duty to document the scene. He had previous instructions not to touch the kid because of transmitting disease. Though, he revealed he shoo away the vulture after waiting for 20 minutes. He was haunted by the girl’s fate amid criticism against him. He committed suicide at the age of 33, three months after winning the Pulitzer for Feature Photography.

I asked the class without explaining the info above the following questions:

  • Take the shot or help the girl?
  • Ethical or not?
  • Conscience or profession

Some contended that photographers should apply the “Shoot first, edit later” rule to decide what pictures are appropriate for publication. “Edit later” doesn’t mean altering the image but merely choosing which is right for publication. Deletion in photojournalism is considered manipulation.

In cases like Kevin Carter’s, some opined that is already the personal decision of each and every photojournalist. However, Paul Martin Lester, professor of communication at the California State University has recommended “Six Ethical Philosophies” to guide photojournalists when taking shots. Please continue reading each philosophy along with the slides. 🙂

“One Hundredth of a Second”: Ethics in Photo-Journalism

I stumbled upon on Friday of a video post on Facebook. The video, i thought offhand, was just a clip of a movie being just in 5:28 minutes. However, i’ve just discovered  a while ago that it was indeed an entire movie: “One Hundredth of a Second“.

It’s a six-minuter short film by Susan Jacobson and Alex Boden. It’s their fourth short film and had received awards from various award bodies in Europe from 2006 to 2007. The premiere of the short-film was on August 22, 2006 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The movie is all about a war photographer–Kate–who is “facing the ultimate dilemma of her profession. She is forced to ask herself; if a person is in mortal danger, do you continue to do your job by taking a photograph rather than getting involved and helping?”

I shared the movie on my FB’s wall and shown it during my Media Laws and Ethics Class Friday night. In fact, my students are now on their assignment: looking for pertinent provision(s) in the Code of Ethics of various media organizations which they could use in coming out with their reaction on the short-film.

Finally, i’ve found a YouTube video of it. Here’s the short movie: (UPDATE!!! YouTube video was removed but here’s a new video site @ Google. UPDATE2!!! The Google video is no longer working. Try again from YouTube below)

It’s been debated many times around the globe on whether journalist who witnessed a crime about to happen would had been extending help to a victim or just witness to it and chronicle the entire event without making a step to intervene.

None of the Codes of Ethics of the various media organizations that i have read and studied specifically addressed to the plight of “Kate”–the lady photographer in the short-film.

Kate, at an instance during her witness to the killing of the poor girl, had second thought whether to proceed taking pictures of the events as it folded or stop the gunman to save the girl.

The Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association in America states:

While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

Surely, Kate would had altered the event should she stopped the gun man. However, if she did intervene she would had save the girl.

The Code of the press photographers is not specific on what event they should avoid. For some, avoiding saving lives would be more unethical than letting the event to happen. They’ve said life is more precious than any codes of ethics on this planet. However, there is a question of the preservation of life on the part of a journalist who is going to risk his or her own life in intervening the event.

The Broadcast Code of 2007 has nothing to offer on similar cases, except these provisions:

Sec.1 . Crime and violence and other acts of wrong-doing or injustice shall not be presented as            good or attractive or beyond retribution, correction or reform.

Sec.2 . Criminals shall not be glorified; crime shall always be condemned.

Sec.3 . Violence shall not be encouraged and horror shall be minimized. Morbid and gory details are prohibited.


Cohleen, (source: Media Ethics, 4th Edition by Philip Patterson, Lee Wilkins)

The video shows that the photographer was busy taking/shooting pictures for the coverage in a newsworthy event. In taking/shooting pictures, a photographer must make several decisions. The most basic question or decision is whether or not to take the photo of a subject.

Often these vulnerable subjects are wounded, in shock, or in grief. In that newsworthy event/moment, the subject of the photograph loses a measure of control over his/her circles of intimacy. That control passes to the photographer, that must take a decision.

Goffman (1959) claims people possess several “territories” they have a right to control. Included in Goffman’s list are two territories that are problematic to the visual journalist:

  • The right to a personal space free from intrusion; and
  • The right to preserve one’s “information”, such as a state of joy, grief, etc., from public view.

By its very nature, photo journalism is an intrusive and revealing process–two violations of Goffman’s sense of self. In many cases, it appears that someone else misfortune is good fortune for the photojournalist. One study (Junas 1980) found that more than half of the winning images in top photography contests were pictures of violence and tragedy.

Inevitably, every photojournalist happens on an assignment that will intrude on a subject’s privacy. Garry Bryant (1987), a staff photographer with the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, offers his checklist he goes through “in hundredths of a second” when he reaches the scene of events such as the ones that were just described:

  • Should this moment be made public?
  • Will being photographed send the subjects into further trauma?
  • Am i at the least obtrusive distance possible?
  • Am i acting with compassion and sensitivity?

To this list, however, Bryant adds the following disclaimer (1987):

  • What society needs to understand is that photographers act and shoot instinctively. We are not journalists gathering facts. We are merely photographers snapping pictures.
  • A general rule for most photojournalist is “Shoot. You can always edit later.” Many photojournalists have taken comfort in the “shoot first, edit later.” arrangement that they hope will shift the ethical decision to a later, less frenzied moment.

Danise, (source: Ethics: Theory and Practices)

It is a common assumption that human life is always to be protected and preserved, regardless of its quality, by every means we have at our disposal.


According to James Nachtwey, a photojournalist, “The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer, I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity.” These phrases or lines inspired me a lot and made me realize that a photojournalist’s work is not easy.


“This could not only be a part of ethics but also a basis as to how human we are and how great our conscience can influence us.”


“It was a conflict between doing her job as a photo journalist and doing  the right thing as a person.”


“I’d rather be out of scoop than be famous by sacrificing an innocent life.”


“I would still have done the same if i were on her shoes, though i wouldn’t show the photo in public. Just make it a part of my personal collection.”


“If this is what “art” is all about, then there’ll be more violence–easily caught in the lens of a camera. For me, I wouldn’t trade my fame for the life of an innocent person.”


“I didn’t deny the possibility of utmost excitement that she might had felt foreseeing the fame and glory that awaits her; I just never thought that her own rationality as a journalist would betray her own conscience.”


“Aren’t there any protocols to follow when covering a crisis situation and what organization would recognize or even award someone who takes a gory picture of a minor when in the first place identities of minors or victims should be withheld?”


“I totally appreciated the plot as well as the moral of the story. It has been an eye-opener to an aspirant journalist like me.”


The National Press Photographers Association advises that photojournalists should have as little impact on an event as possible, without altering the course of activities with her presence. Likewise, photojournalists have a duty to show the world accurately, and sometimes that means showing the uncomfortable truth.

In my perspective, the journalist in the film had done the right thing. It is not her job to fight terrorists, protect the citizens of a nation, and rescue people from war. That is the job of the military forces. The journalist could do so little in that event because she had no weapons and no military skills. She could have also lost her own life if she had tried to rescue the girl; furthermore, she had little time to call for help.

She had done what a journalist should do, and that is to capture the truth and show it to the world. Through her photograph, she tells the world that it is time to stop this violence.

Irish Faith,

It was like a battle between being an obedient journalist versus being a person with heart.


As John Nacenroe says: “Ethics is not definable, is not implementable, because it is not conscious; it involves not our thinking, but also our feelings.”


Based from a study conducted by Maria Russo that examines the role of photojournalists, further question were raised. Is the act of viewing photographs of a person suffering exploitative? Where does the fine-line between informing and exploiting end in photojournalism?


The photographer used her skills in photography and used her art as the medium to send the message of violence. But the image of the dead girl was a work of art by a heartless talent who didn’t even have the conscience to censor it just for the glorification of her chosen profession. Her colleagues looked at the dead girl’s photograph as the best masterpiece instead of looking into their conscience and self-censorship. They had overlooked ethics in their field.


The photographer chose to exercise her fundamental freedom of ourselves because it’s her main job to capture the “truth” even if its very hard.

…to be continued! 

(Related post: Ethics in Photo Journalism)