Analysing social and ethical implications of photography in various contexts
(Trigger Warning: Sensitive Images)
Photography is always a deliberate act. One of including and excluding, of focusing and defocusing. Of picking and cropping, colouring, fixing, and desaturating. Of making choices. Naturally, photography has its own role in politics, if an underestimated one. Political decisions affect every life, be they in the lofty sphere of international diplomacy, in the grit-and-grind of lawmaking on all levels, or simply in accepting or denouncing what currently takes the mantle of official policy. Mere images may not seem political because they do not explicitly showcase political issues. But even if they don't do that, they still say something in the political sphere.
Analysis of day-to-day occurrences in the world gives primary preference to reportage and journalistic writing. Photography is oft-forgotten as another form of conveying ideas and feelings. Newspapers or print-media journalism could not exist without visual and written components; they blend together like bread and butter. As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. While journalistic writing is fairly straightforward, photography remains an abstract art – photos are meant to be interpreted from the eyes of the viewer but still guided by the hands holding the camera. There is an element of peering into another universe through the lens of a camera. Whether the photographer intends to or not, the photograph sends clear messages. Through simple editing, cropping, and angles, interpretations of visually recorded events are altered dramatically.
The ability to manipulate information in such blatant ways has unfortunately been taken advantage of by mass media over the years. Photography has become a tool of propaganda, historical revisionism, and colonial apologies. In attaining proper journalistic ethics, questioning modes of communicating information remains dire. Large news outlets or magazines are frequently corporate-controlled. Forbes reports billionaires owning part or all of several of America's influential national newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, in addition to magazines, local papers and online publications. Some billionaires, like Michael Bloomberg, are longtime media moguls who made their fortunes – over US$10 billion as of 2023 according to Forbes – in the news business. Others, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, bought publications, including the Washington Post, as a side investment after building a substantial fortune in another industry. The New York Times is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family, who have transformed NYT from a newspaper into a profit-making company run on nepotism. Institutional investors purchased a net US$2.4 million shares of NYT during the quarter that ended June 2019 and now own around 91.4%; by CNN Business’s research, this is standard in the newspaper industry, an ode to how normalised corporate interference is.
Truth-telling journalism is a joke within the corporate world; these news outlets have been accused on multiple occasions of receiving funding from agencies to tell the story the government wants. The purpose of communications is educating the masses but that remains a far-off goal in all types of media, including photography. Rather than opting for the profit-centred model of modern newspapers and magazines, visual media should be centred around being ethical and valuing the boundaries of those whose stories journalists are meant to narrate. Consumers must critically analyse the purpose of the media they consume.
The first permanent photograph of a camera image was made in 1826 by Joseph Niepce using a sliding wooden box camera. History has not known peace since. The invention of the camera made documenting human existence a possibility. No more were people reliant on paintings and abstract art; they could escape to another time. They could understand humanity’s quirks through snaps of reality. Photography became the “big brother” to art. Both told a story visually, but while paintings were an artist’s interpretation of the time period, photography was direct. Faces, clothing, and houses. Art was a secondary source of history, photography was primary. Photography has been central to comprehending modern history. The camera had all the power to streamline information for the public. The photographers living in America and Europe, on the other hand, had other plans for what to do with their fine gadgets.
The 19th century was the peak of the colonial era. The majority of the colonised world, which would later be deemed the Global South, did not possess any control over their own industries. Owning nothing of their own, all profits earned were handed over to the colonial masters. While Europe and the US experienced innovation, invention, and an industrial revolution, other corners of the world served in agony. No cameras and no free time for them. What little room they had to document their own history, their own lives and stories were stolen from them. Newspapers in colonial countries, since ancient times, were fascinated by the measly lives of their subjects in the colonies. The glory era was to be documented in film and enjoyed by the consumer later. Thus, photography transformed into a valiant knight, recording the glorious effects of colonialism for generations to come.
Colonial governance and its sorry intersection with visual media are best demonstrated through India’s colonial famines. The dehumanising photography provides a frame to understand how modalities in visual technology alter the course of colonialism. The year was 1876 – a famine began to take a toll on the citizens of the Madras Presidency. Few voices could be heard from within the colonial administration. A physician, William Robert Cornish, Sanitary Commissioner of Madras, mourned the absence of photographers working in conjunction with his office. Words could at best “feebly represent the actual facts,” he said. If the administration could only “see the living skeletons assembled at feeding houses” as he had, Dr Cornish hoped they might budge from their stubborn and unquestioning support of the principle of laissez-faire colonial capitalism.
A photographer did stumble along, though not what was initially imagined. Willoughby Wallace Hooper was an amateur serving in the Madras Cavalry. The locations to which he was later transferred enabled him to undertake the ethnographic project of the Madras Famine. Zahid R Chaudhary suggested in his book Afterimage of Empire (2012) that his photographs were sold commercially and circulated in private photo albums. The October 6, 1877 issue of The Graphic featured images of the Madras famine, captioned “Forsaken” and “The last of the herd”. These were engravings based on Hooper’s photographs. To this day, The Picture Library of the Royal Geographical Society in Britain is the host to a number of these photographs.
Hooper is dead now. His intentions can never be known but without a doubt, the pictures people have come to know too well are not ethical. Rotting bodies, bones showing through the skin, and children rolling on the side of the street are common occurrences. Whether or not these people had lived lives outside the photographs, does not matter to the viewer. One glance at the pictures and there is nothing but a feeling of consuming human pain. Starving to death, the viewer is made to feast upon the flesh of a weakened subject who had no life remaining. If they were asked to smile, the muscles on their jaw lacked the strength to – an eerie sense of dread paints their faces. The gaze is predatory, not caring – all that can be understood is that India was helpless. Further generations of people living in the Indian colony are descendants of the victims of famine. Instead of reliable history to flip through, there is nothing but the bare bodies of victims who apparently did not deserve food but instead were asked to hold poses outdoors.
Death, death, death. Hooper, and many other colonial photographers, would be privy to knowledge that the subjects of their photographs fell victim to untimely deaths. “He [Hooper] one evening selected seven persons whom he wished to photograph,” The Times of India reported at the time, “but the light not being favourable he said he would come in the morning and photograph them. The next morning he came, and found that they had all died during the night.”
Neo-classical balustrades lie in the background of the pictures, the buildings serving as a detached aestheticisation of famine-stricken life. The photographs are not organic, instead, they are carefully arranged not to tell a story but catch the aesthetic attention of the viewer. Hooper did not view his subjects as people but instead, as jewels to show off.
However painful the pictures may be, they still deliver the wrong message about the famines. Though they are meant to evoke a sense of pity, the viewer would never question what caused the misery in the first place. Throughout Great Britain, Indians were perceived to be genetically sickly. They were cursed to languish under various illnesses, particularly the lower classes. The famine was purported to be a natural selection for a group of people whose lifestyle was unhealthy and uncouth compared to fine society. Further, in the mid-19th century, it was deemed common economic wisdom that government intervention in famine was unnecessary and even harmful. The market would restore a proper balance. Any excess deaths, according to Malthusian principles, were nature's way of responding to overpopulation. All the colonial state cared about was draining the vulnerable of their resources through exporting goods. The photography is a testament to this indifference. Foreigners consume the flesh of starving civilians while standing around watching them perish.
The story is no standalone one, neither in the past nor present, though, and is only an episode in a long history of problematic photography. Photography as a field seems to be unable to resolve the ethics of documenting tragedy. On March 26, 1993, The New York Times published a photograph by Kevin Carter which represented the ghosts of famine in Sudan: a child in a foetal position, incapacitated with a vulture looking upon her flesh. The goal seemed to be to draw public attention to the crisis. Ultimately, in 1994, Carter was awarded a Pulitzer for his work. What became of the girl is unknown, but the rate at which people in the West praised photography of the devastation in Sudan is revelatory. The unending stream of photos consumers are exposed to is desensitising. Wealthy photographers and photojournalists, primarily from the Global North, are assigned to countries in the Global South where they take disrespectful, unethical photos of poor people, refugees, manual labourers, and the list goes on and on.
Other than that, the use of Photoshop and manipulated photography through the camera is a tool for advertisement and politics. Flooding newspapers with images of random people in the Middle East being bombed, normalises violence in the region. Reporters from major news outlets are often sent to record the ground situation in war-torn areas. From their limited American perspective, they film whatever they consider to be jarring. The photographs are always edited with a sepia filter, to show the country as an apocalyptic wasteland. A child crying among rubble with no support is shocking to the audience. Images of physical violence at the hands of groups like ISIS and the Taliban urge the viewer to sympathise with anti-terrorist efforts.
There is no denying the atrocities of extremism, but to reiterate, the news outlets mainly work for the government and the corporate sector. They are not unbiased and neither are their reporters; they would never publish photographs defaming countries like the US or weapons manufacturing companies. The US military is routinely glorified as a law-abiding unit. US soldiers are shown travelling around Afghanistan and Iraq, doing their duties, to rally their citizens behind the government. Meanwhile, brown-skinned men are uniformly depicted as violent lunatics monitoring the streets in mobs or beating women with sticks. The US (“us”) is good, and the foreigners (“them”) are bad. The visual shock factor is key in manufacturing consent for war among the public. Black and white, simple as that.
Western visual media is seldom a credible source – simply look to reportage on Palestine. In photography, the Palestinian resistance unit Hamas is portrayed as some rugged men of the Earth riding in tanks. They have guns in their hands, fully armed, so as to deprive them of any sense of humanity. Pictures of them sparring with Israeli soldiers are shown as “clashes” even though Hamas soldiers receive informal training in boot camps – they are not professionals. On the other hand, photos of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are deceptively shown as humans with faces, whether smiling, crying or travelling in groups. The viewer would not sense them to be violent terrorists. Further, women are commonly portrayed in the photography of the IDF, so as to bolster the image of Israel as “feminist” compared to conservative Palestine. In the summer of 2021, there was a TikTok trend where Zionist female soldiers would share their positive experiences in the army in short clips. Considering that Palestinian journalism is censored, most photography originates from Israel, the UK, or US-controlled media outlets such as the Times of Israel or the Jerusalem Post. The audience’s understanding of Palestine is therefore distorted via visual perception. Meanwhile, the concern for the victims of war is nil.
War photographers do not harbour any real concern for the comfort of the innocent civilians they capture on film. The most notorious example remains The Afghan Girl – a 1984 photographic portrait of a 12-year-old girl, Sharbat Gula. Two piercing green eyes and a sharp stare jolted the world in its tracks. It forced the world to acknowledge the human price of war in Afghanistan. Gula was immortalised in a National Geographic magazine by none other than Stephen McCurry himself, who later went on to receive notable accolades such as the World Press Photo Award. Some have likened it to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – “The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa”. Though everyone may recognise the familiar face of a child’s resilience in the face of adversity, few know of her story. Gula was among millions of Afghan refugees who had fled their homes and attempted to make a livelihood in neighbouring Pakistan. The United Nations refugee agency reports Afghan refugees living abject lives, lacking access to education and sanitation. Gula too, upon arriving in Pakistan, spent her time attending school in a squalid refugee camp. One day, McCurry visited with his handy camera. Whilst at the school, he photographed Gula and other girls.
Later, it was alleged Stephen McCurry did not acquire permission to take pictures of the girls. According to Pashtun culture, women were not to show their faces to anyone outside the family. Gula being an innocent 12-year-old girl, covered her face up with her scarlet-coloured headscarf. Upon seeing McCurry she attempted to hide her face out of embarrassment. Steve demanded more. He again requested her to remove her burqa and uncover her face. The teacher in the school collaborated, and upon pressure, Sharbat Gula complied. Upset by everyone’s words, Gula fled in fear, traumatised, leaving Steve dry as he reloaded his camera for more photos. Steve never asked this girl’s name, what her story was or if she was being fed at night. The celebrated photo was non-consensual.
None of it mattered. A nameless person, an object, a model – one who would receive no recompense, no monetary share of the profits. Steve broke rules, but he rose to fame anyway. Analysis of the Afghan Girl photograph is bent on emphasising the fear of the Afghan war in the girl’s eyes. That, or she represents some resistance against the war. Incorrect. The only fear in her eyes that day was directed at the foreign white photographer forcing her to reveal herself against her will, repeatedly pushing her until he got what he wanted. She had a name, a right to privacy, and a right to make her own decisions. She deserved humanity. Millions of copies of Sharbat’s face traversed the world but she lay unaware, running around from country to country fleeing war. In 2002, she was again tracked down by National Geographic and Steve McCurry was sent to take her photos. This time, it was her husband who coerced her.
Sharbat Gula’s story is that of thousands of children, particularly girls, in the Global South. A story of weaponization and propagation of the patriarchal idea of fragile girls with no rights or minds of their own needing protection from the ‘big bad world’, wrapped in white saviourism. Due to no check on power, photographers are free to do as they wish with little fear of consequences. Much like the military, the press acts as another agent of imperialism: the propaganda wing. By exotifying the chilling cries of children, their tears, their eyes, and the dirt on their faces, photographers set a precedent: this is the land of ruin, and outsiders must intervene to stop the chaos. Women's and children’s trauma is made into cinema; a video to be consumed. Consent is imperative for photography. When children are dehumanised to the point where their consent is violated, photography takes on a voyeuristic persona. The camera is always looking at people’s private lives, stalking and recording them. The subject’s wishes are never respected. Honest journalism should focus on what story the subject wants to share.
Several male photographers, in particular, choose to take their projects in a patriarchal direction. Most print media journalism is centred around sexualising women’s bodies. As children, it begins by exoticising the subject, much like Sharbat Gula was. Then, as adults those boundaries become non-existent. For the purpose of marketing, women are made to fit beauty standards or be beautiful even in times of pain. Everyone is bombarded with hypersexualised images of women, so much so that most don’t even notice them. Researchers reviewed over 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades and found 83% of women appear in sexualised images. They surround the earth as the air people breathe; messages so blatant, they become invisible, encouraging the normalisation of female objectification.
Even in times of war or poverty, this does not stop. During ISIS’s reign over Iraq and Syria, then news reporters would post video report upon video report online where Yazidi girls were narrating their sexual trauma after being sold into sexual slavery by ISIS. Kurdish teenage girls fighting ISIS in Rojava were almost fetishised as flawless, beautiful symbols of anti-terrorism. Nothing was done to assist them, rather their trauma was broadcasted on television and made to consume by Americans. Them being women was central to the fetishisation: young women being photographed and sold as the resistance served the narrative of the Middle East where women were perpetually oppressed.
“For photographs to accuse and possibly invoke a moral response, they must shock,”
Judith Butler, 'Torture and the Ethics of Photography'
Whether or not photographing the precarious can ever be ethical remains a question to be answered. Distinguish between reporting and editorialising. What should be foregrounded are the voices of the everyday people on whom the news is reporting, not those of journalists or photographers. The latter brings perspective, readability and viewability to the material. However, it’s the voices and faces of the vulnerable that tell the story. After all, it’s their story. This vision must never be lost. The purpose of photography is not to appease the demands of corporate media, it’s to capture the authenticity of human life. Journalism should be truth, not spiced-up propaganda to feed the thirst of consumers. Individuals must scrutinise and challenge the dominant media’s messaging.
Poor or rich, urban or rural, Global North or Global South, everyone deserves the right to informed consent and privacy. Never cause harm to the subject. Does a picture always speak a thousand words? The context of the shooting is crucial, if not there is a risk of isolating the photograph from the knowledge and surrounding information. The camera is in the hands of photographers — it is up to them where the gaze falls.
Edited by Thenthamizh SS
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