Ethics in journalism, and media creation is something we at Small World News think a lot about. We have produced an average of one new curriculum a year over the last 4 years, not counting localizations of the StoryMaker materials. Each of these provides an entire section focused on teaching Ethics. We are continuously thinking about how to better teach ethics in photography, because too often in the classroom, our students see ethics as an afterthought. Good journalism is about serving the community, and ethics are fundamental to putting the community first.
This is why I was very excited to see our friends at Reboot publish: “Does This Picture Make You Feel Sad? Practical Questions for Ethical Photography.” Reboot is a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance. The author, Lauren Gardner, explains Reboot’s principles for photo documentation, and the importance of continuing to innovate and evolve their approach, in order to use photos ethically.
I met one of Reboot’s founders, Zack Brisson, in 2009, when he was still working with the Enough Project, an organization dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity. Since Reboot launched in 2010 they have grown dramatically and are doing fantastic work in the area of evaluating impact and improving the inclusivity of development and government programs.
A year ago Reboot shared their principles for “a more empathetic approach to taking and using photos.” It’s admirable to see an NGO take this step, but even more so how they acknowledged in their recent post that it’s been “surprisingly hard to operationalize these guidelines consistently.” Lauren Gardner writes:
A camera is obtrusive. Before taking a single frame, Patrick Ainslie, one of our skilled photographers, gradually introduces it as a non-threatening object. He walks into an interview with the camera slung over his shoulder. As the trust and conversation builds, he progressively makes it more visible—first by putting it on a table, then holding it in his hands.
This is very similar to what we advise, and what photojournalist Amina Ismail recommends in this video from one of our lessons on Ethics in the StoryMaker 1 journalism curriculum. Ismail is Egyptian and covered the country’s 2011 revolution:
I hope you will read their post for yourself, but I want to point out one technique it emphasize, which I found particularly interesting. Reboot doesn’t just explain abstractly to the subject of the photograph how the image will be use. Each of Reboot’s photographers carries, as part of a kit, laminated examples of how photographs may be used.
I find myself largely in agreement with the principles outlined in the post, except for in two areas.I think the disagreement may be due in part to the distinction between SWN’s focus on journalism and fact-based storytelling vs Reboot’s focus on ensuring inclusivity in development work.
Reboot’s policy forbids using imagery that conveys “sadness.” I would never suggest a journalist or documentarian avoid this kind of imagery, however I do teach that journalists must always make an effort to never stage, stereotype, or objectify the subject of an image in order to increase the emotional impact or advocate a specific message.
Finally, Reboot’s Lauren Gardner writes “Our journalistic instincts may steer us toward an image that’s powerful, but that we don’t have permission to use, doesn’t respect the dignity of its subject, or just isn’t right for the context.” There is the potential to read this as if it implies journalists don’t consider permission, subject’s dignity or context. This suggests to me that Lauren believes journalists don’t consider these important issue. I believe she’s wrong, but that itself emphasizes the continuing importance and necessity of teaching ethics in journalism, and an ongoing need to rethink and innovate how we teach ethics.