Ethics And Photography Discussion

- - Ethics

Interesting conversation over on the NPR radio show On The Media (here) where host Bob Garfield talks with Martin Schoeller, Jill Greenberg, Platon and former DOP of Time Magazine Maryanne Golon about the ethics of portrait photography. It’s interesting because he’s looking for answers about the journalistic responsibility photographers have to subjects and viewers but he’s not asking photojournalists he’s asking celebrity portrait photographers who by and large as you will hear or read don’t really take that into consideration when making pictures. It’s a good discussion to have because publications like Time have long since crossed over into hiring photographers that will give them more punch on the newsstand and less of a balanced look at the subject.

“one category of mass media photography operates with hardly any rules at all”

You can listen here:

Or download (here).

There’s much more in there but I really enjoyed this exchange:

MARTIN SCHOELLER: I think there has been a long tradition in portrait photography where photographers try to capture a person’s personality, rather than feeling obliged in trying to make them look good. The best example, I think, is Richard Avedon. I mean, you feel like he would take your picture and you would come across as mentally challenged. I don’t think Avedon ever tried to please anyone but himself with his portraits.

BOB GARFIELD: Nor Schoeller himself. His ultratight portraits, which have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, are typically grim mug shots, sort of Chuck Close meets your driver’s license photo. His Jack Nicholson could be a serial rapist, and his Barack Obama resembles Abraham Lincoln, homely wart and all.

The shots are arty and arresting but not exactly flattering, although Schoeller takes issue with that characterization.

MARTIN SCHOELLER: I don’t think my pictures are unflattering, to be honest. The light is very flattering. It’s not a wide-angle lens; they’re not distorted. I just think that people are nowadays not used to seeing people as people anymore, and your perception of the environment is so twisted by all these pictures that you see in magazines and advertisements that if you see a person just for who they are, you are really shocked.

BOB GARFIELD: Are we indeed so conditioned to the unreal world of ads and celebrity photography that we, the audience, can’t handle the truth? Certainly, magazine photography, at least where movie stars aren’t involved, is not hagiography. It is not commissioned to flatter the subject. But whether you’re JFK sitting for Karsh of Ottawa or the family next door posing in sweaters at Olan Mills, no one wants to look mentally challenged or criminal, or demonic, or even unattractive.

So do portraitists and editors have any responsibility to their subjects’ basic vanity? Reporters certainly don’t. If the reporting doesn’t distort facts or context, nobody has a beef. Why should photography be held to a different standard?

PLATON: All I can do is to try and find a human quality and break through all of these plastic walls that are put up in front of me and my sitter, and all the time restrictions and all the pressure that they try to bombard me with to stop me finding perhaps my sense of what the truth is.


One thing that Bob seems to be missing in this whole discussion is that it’s the magazine that determines the ethics of the photography they use. It’s the magazine’s job to fact check not only the stories but also the photography. There are almost always many images to choose from a shoot and the final selection of images to run will ultimately determine the tone of how the subject is portrayed. The editors are making those final decisions. It’s up to the readers to align themselves with magazines that deliver whatever level of ethics in storytelling they are comfortable with.

There Are 36 Comments On This Article.

  1. I was a photo editor at a national news magazine in the late 80’s when the debate over the ethics of digital retouching was first emerging.

    I always maintained that as a photo editor, the direction I gave the photographer, the photographer’s particular style or vision and my edit of the shoot was more “manipulative” than anything that could be done digitally.

    Photojournalism is no more or less subjective than other forms journalism. Publications, editors, writers and photographers all have a point of view whether they acknowledge it, or even recognize it, or not.

    We should all strive to be fair and ethical but we also need to realize the limitations of “objectivity.”

    Context is everything. A picture of Dick Cheney looking demonic means one thing on the cover of Mother Jones, something else entirely on the cover of the National Review.

  2. Whenever I go out representing a magazine I consider myself a journalist. On other days I may be a commercial photographer or a fine arts photographer, but when I’m shooting for a publication I follow strict journalistic rules.

    After listening to the Garfield story I was shocked at the bubble that both the photographers and photo editors lived in that that didn’t seem to relate to the publication.

    I was surprised when during on of my 15 minutes of fame as a subject of a “Wired Magazine” Crowdsourceing feature that the writer called to fact check his story, an independent fact-checker called to verify quotes and yet there was little concern that the conceptual photos that were supposed to represent me had no basis in reality.

    There was such concern about the words, but no concern about the “facts” of the photos until I raised the question.

  3. Maybe this will change. More fact checking of photography for certain publications. I can recall several times getting my hide tanned for a bad caption and some discussion about how to prevent images from running that are not factually correct. I also remember Corbis saying they would no longer contact photographers for more caption information/clarification because it was a hassle.

    So, this has been discussed but I don’t think we ever figured out a way to fact check an image. It’s not like you can show the subject the image. They would never show the subject an entire story.

    • I feel like NPR is trying to merge editorial and photojournalistic photography into one category. Maybe its my limited perspective as a student, but I always believed and viewed photographs in magazines such as Time differently from those exhibited in New York Times Magazine due to the subject matter and more illustrative aspect.

      I do agree that there appears to be a larger scrutiny of the editor and photographer now, when you’re merely a click away from contacting them, as opposed to having to hunt.

    • @A Photo Editor, Wired didn’t show me the final story for me to approve, they asked about facts in the story. In a similar way they could have asked if often shoot models wearing bathing suits. I would have answered – “not in 25 years”. If asked if I normally load my lighting cases with a camera strapped around my chest, I would have said -“no I only did that for the photographer”.

  4. Cynthia Wood

    I think readers stopped seeing anything close to ‘factual’ photography in magazines a long, long time ago. The separation from ‘reality’ has only become that much more dramatic since the advent of digital and all those sophisticated tools we now have to tweak images.

    Regarding your last paragraph: Rob, how can readers possibly “align themselves with magazines that deliver whatever level of ethics in storytelling they are comfortable wit” when the ethics issue (vis-a-vis photography/retouching) is not and has never been transparent…?

    Nobody seems to know what anybody –certainly not any celebrity– really looks like anymore!? How else could horrific TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” ever have been possible if they did…?

  5. Just another photog

    Jill doesn’t seem to understand why what she did on The Atlantic’s time was wrong. Perhaps her argument would be stronger if she hadn’t felt the need to shoot it covertly…?

  6. I’ve spent the last 15 years lying on the ground using wide angle lenses to photograph politicians, business leaders and fashion models . Only once, in that 15 years has a subject or publication complained about my camera angle or lens choice. More often than not….I receive reprint and reuse requests from the subject! I agree with MARTIN SCHOELLER “people are nowadays not used to seeing people as people anymore, and your perception of the environment is so twisted by all these pictures that you see in magazines and advertisements that if you see a person just for who they are, you are really shocked.” Fact: controversial images sell magazines. This particular NPR radio show was almost as ignorant as the Fox News “why do they retouch Obama, but not McCain broadcast.”
    Nothing’s changed: Jill Greenberg still “peed in the pool.”

  7. “a diminution of our collective faith in the photograph’s indexical relationship to the real will inevitably lead to the death of photography as an autonomous medium.” geoffrey batchen, “each wild idea”

    seems like it comes down to perception, and how people want to make themselves believe they have a handle on truth/fiction/appearance… great photos may confront peoples paradigm’s or episteme’s, but won’t the easy out always be to discredit the source.

  8. As far as Scholler is concerned, I think there is nothing more flattering then when a portrait captures the human. He’s no exception and he does that more often then not. Even when he backed off to do his portraits of female bodybuilders he still managed to capture, what I think to be, a true representation of his subject. Personal style aside, whether it be Avedon or Scholler, both manage to accomplish that feat.

  9. In full agreement with i.n.galbraith.

    While I understand both sides of the argument – that there are reasons magazines (and the photographers representing their “interests” and “vision”) over-produce and provoke shots of subjects that are not at all faithful to their general appearance and personality, for the sake of increasing magazine sales and supporting opinions made in the copy of a story….

    …I think I will always remain a purist. Call me “cliched” for saying this, but I find myself nostalgic for telling, revealing, emotional portraiture.Lately, it’s hard to find.

    On one end of the portraiture spectrum lie (pardon the pun) staged shots with unrealistic settings, crazy props, expressions, etc. that come off more like film stills or photo-illustrations than portraiture. On the other are solemn “stand-em-up-and-shoot-em” deadpan mugshot photographs that can be just as unrevealing about the character of the person being portrayed.

    As to ethics and/or tricking people for shots? It’s a hard question to answer. I would use the metaphor/analogy of “news writing” vs. “op-ed columns.”

    News writing : Portraiture :: Op-Ed columns : “Staged”/”Provoked” shots

    As a photographer, I don’t know that I would agree to stage a shot of someone that would be a total smear campaign against them. I’ve always felt that true portraiture should be a collaboration, a moment of connection between photographer and subject that occurs during the shoot. Cut out the bells and whistles.

  10. It’s all about context and how the work is being presented – the work of Martin Schoeller and Platon (and Jill Greenberg) is unmistakably a set-up, produced and contrived (not necessarily a negative thing) scene taking place in front of the camera. Does anyone actually believe that Platon just happened to be in Arlington National Cemetery while that mother was hugging her son’s tombstone (from the back of the marker, no less)?

    The nature of photography (and writing) is interpretation and it’s a cockamamie idea that it need (or should) represent “reality” (whatever that is). It’s something the journalism industry has been hung up on for a long time and has still not mastered. As soon as you introduce a human, you’re dealing with subjectivity.

    At the very least, Hunter Thompson got it right. There’s more truth to a lot of his writing about the Nixon campaign than was ever written anywhere else. The only way to get a clear view of anything is by having a defined point of view, obvious in the interpretation.

    That said, I still think Greenberg abused the trust of her editors (although I think the subject is fair game to an extent) – they hired her to do a style which she markets as her “style” (heavily retouched, overlit, idealized images) and she deliberately didn’t (or what if Platon suddenly decided to shoot with a long lens). And then she posted the images with badly retouched-in monkeys crapping on his head. I think AVS put it best when he said “that’s some low rent shit”.

  11. Jill sounded like a complete moron as she tried to rationalize sandbagging McCain because she disagrees with his politics. She sounded like a self-important idiot.

    You’d like to think she’d suffer in the pocketbook because of her duplicity and “abuse of her editors’ trust” as someone above put it; but I suppose it’s too much to hope for.

  12. If you have Jill Greenberg talking about ethics you can also sit down with the Taliban and talk about women’s rights, no?
    Otherwise an interesting panel.

  13. Sh*t rolls down hill, and often stops at the photographer. I do think it is the duty of editors to fact check images, and consider the impact related to context. Obviously as professionals we are responsible for how we portray the people we photograph, but as Avedon noted in the past, there is a give and take between photographer and subject.

    I think there is another factor in that PhotoShop and digital imaging are now so mainstream that more people in the general public question images. Partially this comes from the overworked celebrity images in so many publications, making many wonder if people can really look that good. People should not expect truth in images, yet now more than ever before the average person questions more images.

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