picture: Eikoh Hosoe
The reason I couldn't think of much to say about ethics in the previous post about Scot Sothern's remarkable Lowlife pictures is
a) photographers are only photographers, not preachers, charity workers or philosophers; if you want to help people, there are better ways of doing it than with a camera
b) Marco Vernaschi
Marco Vernaschi's "Excuse me, here's 70 dollars, could you dig up the daughter you just buried, please?" Child Sacrifice story and pictures really lowered the ethics bar to a different level - though at least Vernaschi agrees that with hindsight his actions were wrong. The resulting responses here and here exposed a seam of comments, assumptions, questions and hypotheses that cover a spectrum of historical and contemporary prejudices.
Vernaschi's pictures dramatise and exaggerate events but I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with this. Why shouldn't Uganda be photographed bure boke, just as Greenland, Varanasi, Tokyo or New York have been photographed.
The question of the story being about a Ugandan child called Babirye Margret is beside the point (No, it probably isn't? I don't know). Would a website or newspaper show the same picture of an American child or a British child who had had some similar disaster inflicted upon them? No, they wouldn't. The question is should they? Perhaps they should. I'm not sure. It is often asked whether we really need to see more starving babies, more pictures of famine and war, on the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Maybe we do need more of those pictures - but only as long as the pictures have more than two dimensions and are accompanied by a half-decent story by a half-decent journalist that reveals something of the background to events and the real reason they are happening.
But how often does it happen that a half decent journalist will be accompanied by a half-decent photographer (like Vernaschi) to create a half-decent story? Perhaps one of the problems for Vernaschi and others is that in the current economic and editiorial climate, he is not only expected to come up with the visual story but also the words that go with it, whilst simultaneously clamouring to every editorial outlet and NGO for a little bit of a commission to help him on his way - which is why he tweaks the captions to fit the pictures - and possibly vice versa. And with that comes a double duty of care, a double dose of ethics that is beyond many photographers (both from the past and present) who are working in the kind of environments that Vernaschi has chosen. Though at the same time, how many photographers would do something as intuitively unethical as pay somebody to dig up their recently buried child?
Is the answer to that question nobody, or is it more than one would expect?
Somebody posted on a comment on this blog recently telling me how little I know. For real! I really don't know. I haven't got a clue.
Here's an interview with Linda Polman, who argues in her book, War Games: the story of Aid and War in Modern Times, that "..humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers." Which isn't too far from saying that photography, both by Vernaschi and others in the field, causes more problems than it solves and is ultimately destructive.
And here's someone who doesn't agree.