Ethical photojournalism

Taking environmental or expressional portraits is a common element in picture stories– the absence of one is considered strange and a viewer will probably get a sense of incompleteness. The viewer has to be connected to the subject in order for the story to have much impact. Capturing the essence of the subject in his or her environment helps the audience understand who, what, and why the story is important or noteworthy.

This is where my understanding of journalistic portrait photography ends. I understand the importance of it, that a story must have one. However, exactly what constitutes a portrait is where my struggle begins.

Many times, you see a portrait like this:

A photo by Brett Benham, please check out his site

It’s definitely a portrait. It is very compelling. However, it’s posed. This week in Multimedia lab, we discussed the importance of eye contact in a portrait photo. I am lost here.

As a photographer, I am always encouraged to be invisible, and that’s what I want to be. I want to see my subject go about his or her life as if I had never shown up. So I have a hard time asking a subject to pose for a portrait. I feel like that goes against my beliefs as a photojournalist– a journalistic photo should never be posed. Our readings this week included several about media ethics. The National Press Photographers Association has a code of ethics; the second and fifth rule state, respectively, “resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities,” and “while photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” In my opinion, asking your subject to pose for a portrait violates these ethical rules.

I think there are many examples of portraits that are not staged. These photos can work twofold: they can establish a connection with the viewer, and establish a connection between the subject and his/her environment. Here’s an example.

This photo was taken by Steve Mepsted. Visit his blog!

The man is in his environment, and he’s doing something. It’s a portrait of him, because it shows a little of the person that he is.

… Right? Can anyone help me?

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