Media Circus: the ethics of photojournalism

Everybody's trashing the paparazzi. But for even legendary photojournalists, moral ambiguity comes with the territory.

Published September 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The ethics ... Let's stop right there. The moment I realized that the coupling of the noun "ethics" with the noun "photojournalism" was an exercise best reserved for the more innocent journalism schools came in Northern Ireland sometime in the mid-1970s. A photojournalist had been apprised that a package left in a public place contained a time bomb. He was waiting, his telephoto lens carefully focused, for someone to approach the package and get blown to pieces. The only question on his mind was whether he would be quick enough to get the moment of detonation, and not the smoke-covered aftermath.

All journalists are familiar with the process of psychic hardening: the first time you have to interview the bereaved and try to wheedle the high school yearbook out of them, the first time a subject doesn't exactly realize that he has not really and truly placed his confidences off the record. A decent journalist will try to resist this process, for the good reason that a conscienceless hack won't produce much that is truly worth reading.

Photographers go through the same sort of process, only at a more drastic and exacting level. They don't merely need to ask the mother for that yearbook photo, they want the mother to cry as she hands it over. A photojournalist needs emotion on the far side of the lens, the more raw the better. To capture and thus exploit rawness is not an activity that necessarily encourages ethical behavior.

Those Diana-chasing paparazzi in the tunnel alongside the Pont d'Alma have been getting a hammering for their brutish behavior. But what about those war photographers who get paid to go on snapping as people die? Photographs of the starving in Ethiopia regularly win prizes without people angrily protesting that the emaciated child would probably have preferred a glass of water and a biscuit than a Nikon or Leica shoved in its face.

There are other, subtler ethical decisions. Take the matter of background. How many photojournalists clicking away in front of the austere priest might try for an angle that permits a pin-up or perhaps a movie poster of a woman in the background? Of course they don't tell the priest, they merely hope he won't notice. I used to work with a professional whose specialty was to pose people in such a way that in the finished photographs they would look silly, or guilty. It might be a matter of having them twist their torsos as the photographer shot them from the side, or of telling them to hold their faces still, but look to the left, or of putting them under a light, creating pools under their eyes. But time after time editors rejoiced in his photographs while the victims seethed at their unethical treatment.

There's been a huge fuss lately about one of the most famous photographs ever to have come out of the Bosnian-Serbian catastrophe: that gaunt row of men staring through wire, seemingly in the first Serbian concentration camp holding Bosnian Muslim prisoners. The photograph went around the world. But later it was suggested that perhaps there was less to the wire than the photo claimed, that it might not even have been part of an encircling fence, that the Bosnian Muslims were not in anything approaching a concentration camp.

The row is still boiling, but it raises the powerful question: What else is shown in the photos on the contact sheet that did not get enlarged? The most famous picture ever to come out of the Spanish Civil War was Robert Capa's photograph "Death in Action," which showed a man falling backward with his rifle springing loose of his outstretched hand. By the late 1970s, the British reporter Philip Knightley was raising the possibility, angrily denied by the photo agency Magnum (which was set up by Robert Capa and later run by his brother Cornel), that this was not a death in action, but in fact a snapshot of a man falling down on a training exercise. There was no possibility of asking Robert Capa. He'd been killed stepping on a land mine in Vietnam. The row continues, with fierce examination of the contact sheets still filed at Magnum.

A photograph is by definition a moment seized from time, and the seizure can remove context in a way that might not exactly be unethical, but does damage the truth. Photographers tend, alas, to think in clichis. Refugees must never laugh. Hungry children must never smile. Someone once told me that Walker Evans' famous black and white photographs of Alabama sharecroppers, printed in James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," didn't exactly do justice to the humanity of these Okies, shown by Evans as invariably grim. The contact sheets apparently showed laughter as well as tears, exuberance as well as despair.

Photography is almost always manipulation. The patron saints of photojournalism all manipulated grossly. Take that famous photo of young love in Paris, the boy and his girl kissing with abandon. Turns out it was a set-up. Or take Henri Cartier-Bresson's equally famous picture of the batty old woman waving a flag somewhere in the Northeast on July 4. Turns out Henri set her up with the flag. So the picture was a lie. Unethical? Most assuredly. That's the nature of the beast.
Sept. 4, 1997

Alexander Cockburn's books include "Washington Babylon" and "The Golden Age Is in Us." He writes the "Beat the Devil" column for the Nation.


Publishers scramble to capitalize on the public's insatiable demand for prose about the princess.


While magazine editors continue to scramble to fill the almost insatiable desire for Di copy -- among other things, the New Yorker will arrive three days early this week, on Friday, with essays by Salman Rushdie and editor Tina Brown -- the book industry hasn't been sitting on its hands.

Salon has learned that at least one major New York literary agency is already shopping a book about Diana and her tragic demise, the first of what are certain to be dozens. The book is to be written by the celebrity biographer Donald Spoto, who is no stranger to the royal beat -- he published a tome titled "The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor" in 1995. Spoto is being represented by the Elaine Markson Agency, which confirmed that it is taking bids on the proposal.

No other details were forthcoming, but there's little doubt that Spoto will be able to lash something together on deadline. He's a veritable factory. Spoto has published "major" biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Stanley Kramer, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and Ingrid Bergman -- and that's just since 1990. His new bio of Marlon Brando, "Wild One," will be published later this year.

Well before Spoto's investigation sees print, and even before the inevitable mass market quickie books about Diana hit the checkout racks, many publishers are planning to revise and reprint earlier titles. USA Today reported yesterday that, among other things, Simon & Schuster will publish a new hardcover edition of "Diana: Her True Story," Andrew Morton's 1992 bestseller, with a new introduction and new photographs; Pocket Books will release 500,000 softcover copies of Morton's original book, plus 250,000 copies of its sequel, "Diana: Her New Life"; and St. Martin's is reissuing its 1995 volume "Diana: Her Life in Photographs" as "Diana 1961-1997: A Tribute in Photographs."

On the other hand, readers whose tastes run to affectionate satire may want to pick up a copy of Peter Lefcourt's charming 1994 novel, "Di and I," in which the princess-with-the-common-touch marries a nice-guy Hollywood screenwriter, moves to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and opens a McDonald's franchise. (The screenwriter woos her by composing an epic poem called "The Dianiad," which he runs on the front page of a local newspaper.)

More eagerly awaited than reissued titles, by devoted royal watchers anyway, is the snarky biographer Kitty Kelly's forthcoming book, "The Royals," due from Warner Books on Sept. 23. No additions to the book are expected, since nearly half its 1 million copies have already been printed. "Kelly may update future editions of the book," said Camille McDuffy, the book's publicist. "But we're confident that no other quickie book will have anything near the scope that her book has." Among the expected revelations in "The Royals," Christopher Hitchens has written in Vanity Fair, is that it took "embarrassing sessions of artificial insemination" to produce the present queen and her sister Margaret.

"This is clearly just the beginning," said Sue Carswell, an editor at Crown Books, a division of Random House. "Most of the journalists who will submit book proposals are still busy covering the story. We are still very early in this process, and most houses are still busy thinking up ideas." Carswell declined to comment on any specific projects Crown is pursuing, but said that "things are definitely in the works."

"How can publishers not be interested in publishing books about Diana?" she continued. "The public interest in her life is nearly as great as the interest was, and is, in John F. Kennedy and Elvis. Diana's grace and beauty and charity touched a lot of people, and she is one of those public figures people may never get too much of."

By Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn's books include "Washington Babylon" and "The Golden Age Is in Us." He writes the "Beat the Devil" column for the Nation.

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