Awards Days Discussion Recap: The Photographer as Activist

Bruno de Cock, Tim Matsui, Francis Kohn and Glenna Gordon at the discussion 'The Photographer as Activist' during the 2015 Awards Days. © Bas de Meijer / Hollandse Hoogte

Bruno de Cock during 'The Photographer as Activist' discussion at the 2015 Awards Days. © Bas de Meijer / Hollandse Hoogte

Traditional perception has journalism concerned with unbiased and neutral reporting. But photographers have ideals; governments attempt to control narratives, and NGOs (who frequently fund photojournalists) have their own agendas.

A panel hosted by Aidan Sullivan, vice president of Getty Images, addressed the issues of whether photojournalists can move away from the idea of unbiased reporting in their pursuit of increasing awareness and creating change; or whether a photojournalist should always claim objectivity, of where lines of acceptability lay, and of what is and what is not ethical.

Sullivan raised the question of whether photographs alone can effect change. Photographer Glenna Gordon, whose images of items belonging to Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram were seen worldwide, once said: “If a photographer’s only job is to take the pictures, then I succeeded; if my job is to create change, I have failed.” Speaking on the panel, she expanded on this, saying that the model she believed in as a young journalist—that it was the photographer’s job to take the pictures and to get them out to the world, and that it was the  world’s job to change in consequence—was flawed. “The expectation is: I take the pictures, you see the pictures, everybody cares, something happens. That equation is broken,” she said. Tens of thousands of people may have seen her images, but the fact that the girls remain missing is part of a complicated political reality.

What else can a photographer then do? Tim Matsui, visual journalist and filmmaker, played a clip showing Lisa, a young sex worker battling drug addiction, whose story was covered in The Long Night, his documentary about sex trafficking of teenagers. Matsui explained how making the documentary had led to a broader project trying to give Lisa and others in her situation more options when they got out of jail, and to initiatives that work pragmatically with the people making decisions, such as victim-services providers and law enforcers. Sullivan asked Matsui at what point he moved from making a multimedia project into a greater involvement in the issue, and whether he felt this crossed a line in his role as a photojournalist. Matsui responded that although there was a fine line, he had to address both the journalistic side, and then not only have the work published but to hand it to people who were doing the work, in a way that they could use—to bring more voices to the table.

Speaking as a member of an NGO, Bruno de Cock, photo editor for Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) Belgium, said that he saw his relationship with the photographers he commissioned as a deal that worked both ways. As long as MSF got the images it needed for its own channels in return for the on-the-ground support it was offering, it would not try to restrict photographers in shooting their own stories. “This is a model that has worked well for us for some time,” he said. Glenna Gordon remarked that NGOs are players with agendas, and that: “when we as photographers work for them, our job is to work for them.”

Francis Kohn, photo director at Agence France-Presse commented that, as a news organization, AFP does not have an agenda in that sense. Although it realizes that true objectivity does not exist, it aims to report all sides, and also to question all sides. While AFP counted out propaganda and militancy, pushing the issue was what good journalists did. “We’ve always had militants as journalists,” he said. “I just don’t want to see it in their work.” Taking Syria as an example, where it is now too dangerous to send in outside photographers, Sullivan asked whether it was difficult not to cross the line in a context where the person carrying the camera might also have a gun. Kohn replied that while it was indeed difficult, AFP tried to explain its ethics and rules, and to give guidelines and training. No strong tradition of photojournalism had existed in Syria. Perhaps a new generation of photojournalists would emerge from this conflict, as had happened in Egypt and Iraq.

Sullivan rounded off by showing Nick Ut’s photo of a naked girl running from a napalm attack, and Eddie Adams’s image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, as examples of photographs that had effected change, by swaying public opinion so strongly that they helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War. This led to a lively debate from the floor, drawing the discussion session to a close.

Posted June 19 2015

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