By: Sheku Putka Kamara  

It is my assumption that in this day and age, the importance of photojournalism is not shrouded in secrecy. The emergence of digital photography offers whole new realms of opportunity for the manipulation, reproduction, and transmission of images. It has inevitably complicated many of the ethical issues involved.

Photojournalism works within the same ethical approaches to objectivity that are applied by other journalists. What to shoot, how to frame and how to edit are constant considerations. Photographing news for an assignment is one of the most ethical problems photographers face. Photojournalists have a moral responsibility to decide what pictures to take, what picture to stage, and what pictures to show the public.

For example, photographs of violence and tragedy are prevalent in American journalism because as an understated rule of thumb, that “if it bleeds, it leads.” The public is attracted to gruesome photographs and dramatic stories. A lot of controversy arises when deciding which photographs are too violent to show the public.

Photographs of the dead or injured arouse controversy because, more often than not, the name of person depicted in the photograph is not given in the caption. The family of the person is often not informed of the photograph until they see it published.

Being exposed to such violence can have physiological and psychological effects on those who document it and are but one of many different forms of emotional labor that photojournalists report experiencing.

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) is an American professional society that emphasizes photojournalism. Members of the NPPA accept the following code of ethics;

  1. The practice of photojournalism, both as a science and art, is worthy of the very best thought and effort of those who enter into it as a profession.
  2. Photojournalism affords an opportunity to serve the public that is equaled by few other vocations and all members of the profession should strive by example and influence to maintain high standards of ethical conduct free of mercenary considerations of any kind.
  3. It is the individual responsibility of every photojournalist at all times to strive for pictures that report truthfully, honestly and objectively.
  4. Business promotion in its many forms is essential, but untrue statements of any nature are not worthy of a professional photojournalist and we severely condemn any such practice.
  5. It is our duty to encourage and assist all members of our profession, individually and collectively, so that the quality of photojournalism may constantly be raised to higher standards.
  6. It is the duty of every photojournalist to work to preserve all freedom-of-the-press rights recognized by law and to work to protect and expand freedom-of-access to all sources of news and visual information.
  7. Our standards of business dealings, ambitions and relations shall have in them a note of sympathy for our common humanity and shall always require us to take into consideration our highest duties as members of society. In every situation in our business life, in every responsibility that comes before us, our chief thought shall be to fulfill that responsibility and discharge that duty so that when each of us is finished we shall have endeavored to lift the level of human ideals and achievement higher than we found it.
  8. No Code of Ethics can prejudge every situation, thus common sense and good judgment are required in applying ethical principles.

The age of the citizen journalists and the providing of news photos by amateur bystanders have contributed to the art of photojournalism. Paul Levinson attributes this shift to the Kodak camera, one of the first cheap and accessible photo technologies that “put a piece of visual reality into every person’s potential grasp.” The empowered news audience with the advent of the Internet sparked the creation of blogs, podcasts and online news, independent of the traditional outlets, and “for the first time in our history, the news increasingly is produced by companies outside journalism.” Dan Chung, a former photojournalist for The Guardian and Reuters, believes that professional photojournalists will have to adapt to video to make a living. Most digital single lens reflex bodies are being equipped with video capabilities.

Sierra Leone’s case is not in any way different. With the emergence of smart phones, people now use mobile phones to take pictures and subsequently share on social media be it Facebook or Whatsapp etc. This has given rise to citizen journalism to a greater extent. However, in all of this, people have to be mindful of what to do and what not to do. A realistic picture can tell a thousand words, but a photo that lacks accuracy and is full of deception and distortion can dent people’s reputations and that is where caution has to be taken.

This is where responsible journalism has to be encouraged for all and sundry. For non-journalists and or citizen journalists, care has to be taken. People should not distort images out of malice and or ignorance. I believe in the philosophy that argues that the duty of journalists is to get the facts rights and that the golden rule of journalism is to allow the people and facts to speak for themselves. These are the things we need – things that enhance and promote democracy. That is what will give us the peaceful coexistence that we all are yearning for.

About the Author: Sheku Putka Kamara is a Journalist, and a Media and Communications Lecturer and Consultant

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