By Nirmaldasan

— Reproduced from 'Issues In Media Ethics', edited by Jacob Srampickal, Media House Delhi, 2009 —

Sadanand Menon calls 22 September 2008 a day of shame as the Indian media ‘collectively displayed its herd-like mentality and its entirely uncritical attitude to the use — and misuse — of the photographs it publishes’ (The Hoot). Three arrested suspects of the Delhi blasts were masked by the police in ‘Palestinian Rumaals’ to give them an ‘Islamic terrorist’ look. In an article ‘The Uses and Misuses of Photographs’, Menon writes: “Repulsive as it is, most people will agree that the Police and its dirty-tricks department are not beyond using such obnoxious methods. What is beyond explanation is how the media collectively fell into this trap and carried these images without a single question mark or doubt about what they so readily display on their front pages.”

This was a peculiar case of media gullibility and serves as a warning to photojournalists to be on guard. It also serves as a good example to show that photographs are coloured not just by photographers with a point of view but also by others who create a deceptive photo-op for the media. The official pictures of Adolph Hitler lied about him. “They turned a monster into a statesman, making him seem high-minded, modest, patriotic and self-sacrificing,” write the editors of Photojournalism (Robert G. Mason 96).

Photojournalists can also be unethical. Robert Capa’s controversial 1936 photograph ‘Falling Soldier’ has provoked Sunday Times Of India to ask “Can War Photography Be Trusted?” (Waldemar Januszczak). And what about the camera itself? Even if it cannot tell a lie on its own, it certainly helps the photojournalist to colour the world. Hence the need to look at the various aspects of visual ethics.

Journalism may be defined as the art and craft of disseminating news and views, both verbally and visually. Since visuals are endowed with tremendous persuasive power, as may be seen in advertising, it is not surprising that photojournalism very often allows itself to be governed by aesthetic principles rather than by ethical norms. In a journalistic context, which is in the public interest, visual ethics and visual aesthetics have to converge and become one. This convergence has two perspectives: 1. aesthetic-ethic perspective; and 2. ethic-aesthetic perspective. The aesthetic-ethic perspective demands that everything good must also be beautiful. On the other hand, the ethic-aesthetic perspective demands that everything that is beautiful must also be ethical.

It is desirable, not necessary, for photojournalism to have an aesthetic-ethic perspective. Not necessary because a picture that captures a significant moment will be in the public interest even if it lacks photogenic qualities. But it is essential for photojournalism to have an ethic-aesthetic perspective. That is, a beautiful picture must also be an ethical picture.

Paul Martin Lester’s ethical perspective involves six ethical philosophies: 1. Categorical imperative; 2. Utilitarianism; 3. Hedonism; 4. Golden mean; 5. Golden rule; and 6. Veil of ignorance (Visual Communication 111-113). He shows how all these philosophies are invoked by the image of a victim of the Mt. St. Helens 1980 explosion. He writes:

Editors for the San Jose Mercury News published the photograph on the front page because it was a strong news picture and the editor thought he had a duty to print it (categorical imperative). It also communicated the tragic result of not heeding official warnings to evacuate from the area (utilitarianism). Many upset readers, however, were sure that the image ran in order to sensationalize the event (hedonism). Some readers thought that the picture should have run smaller and on an inside page (golden mean). Readers also were concerned that the published image deepened the family’s grief (golden rule) or were so upset that they imagined their own family member in a similar situation (veil of ignorance). (115)

This analysis, though admirable, tends to shift the onus of responsibility on shoulders other than the photojournalist’s. Lester’s approach is descriptive and non-committal, suggesting that ethicality of a picture is purely relative. If so, there is no need whatsoever to frame a code of ethics for photojournalists. The Supreme Court of India is also of the view that a blanket ban on obscene material will fetter press freedom. J. Venkatesan writes in The Hindu of December 13, 2006:

Dismissing a petition seeking a ban on publication of obscene photographs in newspapers, a Bench comprising Justices A.R. Lakshman and Tarun Chatterjee said: “Where art and obscenity are mixed, what must be seen is whether the artistic, literary or social merit of the work in question outweighs its obscene content. In judging whether a particular work is obscene, regards must be had to contemporary mores and national standards.”

But what are the contemporary mores and national standards? Should these be left for the media to decide? Perhaps. It is well that the Supreme Court has chosen not to impose curbs on press freedom. But the media must evolve a self-regulatory mechanism to ensure that obscenity is not paraded in the name of art. Photojournalists follow an unwritten code of ethics. Some newspapers even have a written code. There is much discussion about visual ethics on the Internet. The Virginian-Pilot's visual ethics policy appeared in College Front Page (Tuesday, December 26, 2006) and is available at

Fred S. Parrish discusses two ethical approaches: deontology and teleology. The difference between these is that deontology concerns itself with actions, rather than the result of actions; and teleology, with the result of action, rather than the actions themselves. He, however, opts for a judicious mix of the two with the scales tilting slightly in favour of deontology (Photojournalism 299). In addition to the deontology-teleology mix, Parrish suggests other ethical components: a reason component concerning the photojournalist; a concern component concerning the photographed subjects; a value component concerning the sensibilities of the readers; a mission component of the media organization; and ‘a component that takes into account the role of journalism in the country’s democracy and the role of the country in the lives of its citizens’ (296-297).

Since the subject of photojournalistic ethics is complex, here is an attempt to simplify while making due allowances for the complexities. There are at least five ethical features of a journalistic photograph: 1. The ethic of the theme; 2. The ethic of the view; 3. The ethic of the medium; 4. The ethic of the edit; and 5. The ethic of the caption. But these are not mutually exclusive categories. We shall look at each of them, though it is indeed difficult to come to definitive conclusions.

1. Ethic of the theme
There can be no photograph without a theme. The theme or meaning of a photograph is coded by signs: iconic, indexical or symbolic. But it may not always be possible to say that the theme is exactly this and nothing else. This is because the theme of a photograph is determined by its context. The rising or the setting sun, the flowing rivers, the trembling leaves of trees… all these, apparently universal themes, call up different feelings in different cultures. Lester says: “Image analysis teaches two important lessons about the creation of memorable pictures: 1. A producer of messages must know the culture of the intended audience. 2. The symbols used in the image must be understood by that culture.” (108)

Andreas Feininger, when he saw at an exhibition a print of a Cape Cod landscape, was initially at a loss to understand the theme of the photograph that seemed to violate ‘accepted’ photographic standards. He writes:

And then, just as I was ready to turn my back on it, wondering why in the world anybody would want to exhibit such a dull picture, it struck me: but this is exactly what the photographer had in mind! He wanted to express ‘dullness’ — the abject loneliness of these wide stretches of sand on a rainy March Day, the clammy feeling and the damp chill under a harsh northeastern wind, the mood of desolation and monotony when everything is gray, a gray diffused by veils of drifting fog and driving scud — and he had succeeded magnificently!

He goes on to say that good pictures must possess four qualities: 1. Stopping power 2. Purpose and meaning 3. Emotional impact and 4. Graphic quality. (The Color Photo Book 14) It is interesting to note that ‘dullness’ can be the theme of a photograph and yet have stopping power!

Since theme is an outcome of context, ‘nudity’ per se is neither ethical nor unethical. A photograph of a naked baby seldom raises eyebrows, but what if the photograph is of a naked woman? Here follows a hypothetical example: A sculptor makes a massive statue of a pregnant woman lying naked with the pangs of childbirth. In her face is written the ‘agony and the ecstasy’ — ‘agony’ because of the pang, and ‘ecstasy’ because she knows she is going to become a mother. The sculptor’s daughter feels that the statue is in bad taste, though it has artistic merits. The sculptor defends himself saying that the theme of ‘mixed feelings’ demands such a naked treatment. But the people of the town also think that the statue is vulgar and they vandalize it. The daughter, herself a sculptor, sets to work on the body of the damaged statue. And what she comes up with is a new statue of a naked newborn baby on whose face is written the ‘ecstasy and the agony’ — ‘ecstasy’ of being born, and ‘agony’ because the mother is dead. There can be no doubt that the daughter’s handling of the theme is ethical.

Besides nudity, violence as a theme has also been a cause for concern. Journalism Online, in an editorial of January 2005 titled ‘Media Sacrilege’, says that the way the images of the dead are displayed in the media constitutes nothing short of sacrilege. The media showed stark disrespect to the victims of the tsunami tragedy and it also had no qualms in framing the body of forest brigand Veerappan with a bullet hole in his head. However, here is an instance of ethical photojournalism: the media published the photograph of an ‘unknown person’ pleading for his life in 2002. That image, both beautiful and true, became the symbol of the infamous Godhra riots. It appears that a symbolic treatment of violence is best in photojournalism. The ‘unknown person’ came to be identified as Qutubuddin Ansari. His story concerns not the theme but another ethical feature of a photograph that we shall discuss now.

2. Ethic of the view
Taking news photographs is part of a photojournalist’s job. So news photographers have the licence to reasonably violate a subject’s right to privacy. Reason enough for that ethical picture of Ansari to appear in print. But several national and local publications began to reproduce that photograph — a negative publicity for Ansari. Wherever he went, he was recognized for the wrong reasons. In an article titled ‘Hounded By An Image’ in Frontline (August 16-29, 2003), Dionne Bunsha says that his face kept coming back to haunt him and that being an icon reduced his earnings by half. Ansari tells her: "The photographer did his job. But why do the media keep printing my picture? They didn't come back after that to ask me about my problems or to help," and adds: "I don't know how people look at me when they recognise me. Maybe they are sympathetic. But after all that I have been through, I can't help being scared."

A news photograph that is reproduced becomes a file photo. That is, it ceases to be a news photograph. The repetition of this particular view of Ansari, which was ethical in the first instance, becomes a violation of his right to privacy.

The photojournalist’s right to photograph a scene or event sometimes clashes with a subject’s right to privacy. Children accused of some crime, rape victims and victims of violence should not to be photographed. Besides, State Governments for security reasons have no-photography zones.

The paparazzi have been targeting Prince William and his girlfriend Kate Middleton. Writes Hasan Suroor: “The market rate for an exclusive picture of this ‘ordinary’ girl, as Prince William reportedly described her while appealing to the media to leave her alone, is rumoured to be in the region of up to £20,000.” But the Rupert Murdoch group of newspapers have decided not to use anymore paparazzi pictures of Kate Middleton — not because it is unethical, but because of ‘the threat of legal action and behind-the-scenes muscle-flexing by Palace minders’(The Hindu 13).

Celebrated photojournalist Raghu Rai, in an interview in The Hindu Metro Plus, says: “There are times when I have had to take pictures of death, devastation, sadness, cruelty. I have seldom got emotionally involved. You have to be the chronicle; you cannot turn into the subject.” (Giridhar Khasnis 1) But should photojournalists always be the chronicle? Would it not be better for them to be human first and rush victims of an accident to hospital, rather than record on film the bleeding victims?

Ethical issues are also involved in angles of view. A camera’s viewpoint can evoke feelings of superiority or inferiority. Writes Herbert Zettl: “When we look up with the camera (sometimes called a low-angle or below-eye-level point of view), the subject or object seems more important, more powerful, more authoritative than when we look at it straight-on (normal-angle or eye-level point of view) or look down on it (high-angle or above-eye-level point of view). When we look down with the camera, the subject or object generally diminishes in significance; it becomes less powerful and less important than when we look at it straight-on or from below.” (Sight Sound Motion 206) These angles of view and their attached significance only indicate that the camera is not a neutral medium.

3. Ethic of the medium
There are two types of image: pessimistic and optimistic. Photojournalists should attempt to capture images, pessimistic or optimistic, in their proper context. The camera has the power to alter, even rupture, the context because of the bias inherent in every medium. We have already pointed out the implications of the camera’s hierarchical position with reference to the subject in the field of view. The distance between the camera and the subject also has implications. By using powerful zoom lens, the news photographer may make it appear that he was at the spot of an event when he really was a mile or two away.

The use of wide-angle and telephoto lens gives a distorted picture of reality. The fields of view — extreme long shot, long shot, medium shot, close-up and extreme close-up — also pose ethical problems. For example, an extreme close-up shot would eliminate the background of the subject, which may be essential for the interpretation of that picture. Lens speed, film speed, shutter speed, filters and lighting also contribute to the making of aesthetic photographs which may or may not correspond to reality.

The spycam, as its name indicates, violates all ethical norms. The media, especially the electronic media, appear to be very fond of it. Investigative journalism, of the Tehelka kind, makes it appear that the spycam is technology’s gift to democracy. But the spycam is much more an ethical concern in videojournalism than it is in photojournalism.

4. Ethic of the edit
A photograph in the Madurai edition of The Hindu created a minor controversy and the newspaper’s Readers’ Editor, K. Narayanan, discussed the issue and defended the image (‘Images And Reflections’ 13). The photograph was that of a pigeon in a pool of rainwater. The newspaper, he said, had only changed the brightness or contrast to suit the printing requirements. A reader argued that any alteration of a photograph was creating a fake.

Newspapers and magazines resort to simple cropping and make colour balance adjustments. There is nothing unethical in editing photographs. Writes John Hedgecoe: “In an ideal world, all the elements of subject matter included in the viewfinder when you take your picture are just as you would like them to be. In reality, sometimes it is not until you see the finished prints that you realize that some pictures could be improved by cropping out a distracting element at the top or side, or perhaps by changing the shape of the picture altogether by having a selective enlargement made of just part of the image.” (Basic Photography 150) But manipulation of a news photograph to deceive the audience is indeed unethical. A manipulated image, if announced as such, may be embraced as a creative form with due respect in the art world. Computer technology makes it possible for photographers and photo editors to morph an image of reality into something surreal. But in the journalistic context, every photograph has to communicate through the absence of manipulation (Alma Davenport 176).

Patrick Schneider, staff photographer of The Charlotte Observer, had to resign because he altered with photo-editing software the colour of the sky from brownish-gray to deep red in his photograph of a firefighter on a ladder. Donald R. Winslow discusses this controversy along with another — the fabrication of a picture by the editors of el Nuevo Herald. Two separate photographs were combined into one fake picture to support an anti-Castro story about Cuban police allegedly ignoring prostitution (‘A Question Of Truth’ 1).

5. Ethic of the caption
A news photograph is seldom self-explanatory. It requires a caption to explain the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How). It usually consists of two sentences: the first in the present tense; and the second, in the past. The caption must provide information that may not be evident in the photograph (Arul Aram 28). The ethic of the caption demands that the caption must locate the photograph in its proper context. If it is a file photo, the caption must say so.

A caption should never misinterpret an image. Many photographs do lend themselves easily to misinterpretation. A picture of a woman in tears can mean sorrow as well as joy. It is the caption writer’s task to tell us whichever is true. Captions for offbeat photographs, however, can be imaginative and creative. John Keats’s ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ may be seen as a series of photocaptions in verse (‘The Keatsian Caption’, Journalism Online).

Last word: Photography may be an art, but photojournalism’s primary concern is with the visual expression of life as it is in tune with the ethical principles of privacy and public interest. Sometimes the visuals can stand alone and sometimes they may serve to confirm a news story. News photographers need to abide by a written code of ethics. Newspapers and magazines must spell out their visual ethics policy if they are serious about photojournalism, which is indeed a branch of sociology and not a branch of aesthetics. Beautiful pictures, however, can be a part of photojournalism if and only if they are ethical. The ethic-aesthetic perspective must prevail.

Works Cited

Aram, Arul and Nirmaldasan. Understanding News Media, Chennai: Vijay Nicole Imprints, 2006.
Bunsha, Dionne. ‘Hounded By An Image,’ Frontline, August 16 - 29, 2003. Internet:
College Front Page. ‘The Virginian-Pilot's Visual Ethics Policy’ (Tuesday, December 26, 2006). Internet:
Davenport, Alma. The History Of Photography, London: Focal Press, 1991. Feininger, Andreas. The Color Photo Book, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Hedgecoe, John. Basic Photography, London: Collins & Brown, 1993. Journalism Online. ‘Media Sacrilege’, January 2005. Internet:
_______________ ‘The Keatsian Caption’, December 2002. Internet:
Khasnis, Giridhar. ‘I Wish There Were 10 Of Me’, The Hindu Metro Plus, 18 November 2006. Lester, Paul Martin. Visual Communication: Images With Messages. USA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003. Manuszczak, Waldemar. ‘Can war photography be trusted?’, Sunday Times Of India, Chennai, 23 November 2008. Mason, Robert G.. Editor, Photojournalism, Life Library of Photography, Time-Life Books, New York, 1971 (1972 rpt). Menon, Sadanand. ‘The uses and misuses of photographs’ (translated from the Malayalam weekly of the Indian Express, 3 October 2008), The Hoot:
Narayanan, K. ‘Images And Reflections’, The Hindu, December 18, 2006. Parrish, Fred S. Photojournalism: An Introduction. USA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. Suroor, Hasan. ‘A Battle Royal Over Media Intrusion’, The Hindu, 12 January 2006. Venkatesan J. ‘Blanket ban on obscene material will fetter press freedom: court’ and ‘Nudity per se is not obscenity’, December 13, 2006. Winslow, Donald R. ‘A Question Of Truth: Photojournalism And Visual Ethics’, Internet:
Zettl, Herbert. Sight Sound Motion, USA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.

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