How is it that the Ethics of Photojournalism are often violated?

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As seen in the domain of Journalism, Photojournalism also has a separate set of ethics that are to be followed. In my previous article I discussed about the ethics of Journalism that can be looked up at In a similar manner, this article revolves around the discussion of ethics of photojournalism.  

For the purpose cited, I have attempted to critique a very famous photograph by Steve McCurry who happens to be a famous photojournalist. The photograph is popularly known as the ‘Afgan Girl’.

While this picture was clicked, some of the ethics around this profession were seriously violated. One of the objectives of this article is to make the photojournalist aspirants aware of certain actions that are accepted as violation of codes of conduct.

However, before jumping into the ethical part of it, let us understand what photojournalism actually is.

What is Photojournalism? 

The aim of photojournalism is to capture candid moments. One of the main principles is to never change or alter a scene or to influence the setting, unnaturally. This is because these kinds of actions violate the ethics of photojournalism. Ideally, we as photojournalists want to be spectators who are as invisible as possible documenting the world as if we were absent.

Introduction to the Picture of the Afgan Girl

The picture of the ‘Afgan Girl’ constitutes a female who is looking over her right shoulder with her eyes blazing. This was the picture which turned Steve McCurry’s career overnight.

The Right to Privacy

Each one of us have a right to privacy but McCurry violated Sharbat Gula’s (the Afgan girl’s) right to privacy at two different levels; first when he clicked her photograph without her permission and for the second time when he utilized the photograph for commercial purposes. McCurry did not have a Model Release. A Model Release is a legal document that is signed by the subject of the photograph going to be used, giving the photographer permission to use the images taken of them for various purposes. The purposes are typically well defined in the given document.

Favorable Alterations in the Settings

McCurry not only violated the right to privacy but also temped with the settings of the photograph taken. In simpler words, the photo was staged by him. McCurry has himself conceded that Sharbat initially was reluctant to show her face because she was not willing to be photographed. In fact, her teacher was the force of intervention because of whom she put her hands down.

We can look at McCurry’s alteration as a sympathetic action as he was sensitive to the sufferings of the Afghans. Hence, he attempted to stage the photo in order to give it to a more real ‘Afgan’ feeling.

In this manner, he also violated the very important principle of authenticity. It is true that the purpose of photojournalism is to raise awareness but compromising on the aspect of authenticity is no way to do it.

Obsession with Aesthetics

Another problem with the photograph is that it is highly aestheticised. Wearing a ripped red headscarf and standing right in front of an ambiguous green background, Sharbat’s photo cauterized viewers’ hearts with her large, infiltrating eyes. Her unusual green eyes are both amazingly delightful and stunningly unpleasant. When observed closely, I realized that the colour of her eyes match with the colour palette of the full picture. 

Again, the colour of her dark red veil matches with the colour of her skin. Moreover, this is also contrasting to her eyes. Each element in the picture if is framed in a way that it makes the picture captivating. The elements in the picture seem to be perfectly composed.

What I see is that the change in composition of the photograph and the eventual change in aestheticization bring forth a completely different story. An American photo magazine has pointed out that the image presents ‘an unusual combination of grittiness’ and glamour and the ambiguity captured in the ‘girl’s striking green eyes’. Therefore, it is by all accounts apparent that this picture is the striking aestheticization of a poor condition which requires the viewers to empathize with it.

Through my perspective, these violations are very much real and the ethics need to be taken seriously. The picture was published as the National Geographic cover photo in 1985, with the caption, “Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fear”. There was one interesting line about her eyes, which goes like “her eyes were reflecting the fear of war”.

We have to know that Photojournalism has a set of guidelines and ethics. Some of these are that the pictures have to be timely, it has to be objective and it has to follow a narrative and I feel that the ‘Afghan Girl” photo does not follow any of the three stated guidelines. Firstly the caption was misleading; the fear (anger) that can be seen in the eyes of Sharbat was not of war but of the photographer which had invaded her private space. Secondly, there was no narrative about the photograph. Moreover, National Geographic did not even publish her name.

McCurry violated some of the very important ethics and morals of photojournalism. The photo was not only used as the cover photo for National Geographic but it was also sold privately by McCurry. He earned a lot by selling the photos but no share of the amount was provided to Sharbat until 2002. This is when McCurry returned to cover her story again.

McCurry has provided many justifications for the way he photographed the ‘Afghan Girl’ but at no point did he apologize for violating the photojournalism guidelines. Unfortunately, the ethics of Photojournalism are often violated in this manner.

Written by – Kshitij Kumar Ojha

Edited by- Daity Talukdar

How is it that the Ethics of Photojournalism are often violated? How is it that the Ethics of Photojournalism are often violated? Reviewed by Daity Talukdar on June 19, 2020 Rating: 5

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* The views expressed in the above article are of the writer and not Eat My News.
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