The Ethics of Photojournalism

In traditional photojournalism, the ethical question focused primarily on the production of the image itself, on the point of view of the photojournalists who were forced to choose between producing a photographic testimony or acting directly in the moment of a traumatic event. 

Battle of Lewisham in the area of south east London (1977)

Many associations and agencies have responded to these ethical issues by creating and disseminating codes of ethics. An example of the latter is the code of ethics of the National Press Photographer Association (NPPA), an American professional association of photographers, television videographers, editors and students in the field of journalism, founded in 1964 and based at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. 

The NPPA ‘acknowledges concern for every person’s need both to be fully informed about public events and to be recognized as part of the world in which we live’ and further states that ‘photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding’, but that at the same time they ‘can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated’. Their code therefore aims to promote the highest quality in all forms of visual journalism, strengthen public confidence in the profession and serve as an educational tool for those who practice and enjoy photojournalism.

According to this code, visual journalists must follow the following standards in their daily work:

  • Be accurate and complete in their representation of subjects.
  • Resist manipulation of staged photographic opportunities.
  • Be complete and provide context during photography. Avoid stereotypical representation. Recognise and work to avoid presenting biases in work.
  • Treating all subjects with respect and dignity. Paying special attention to vulnerable subjects and compassion for victims of crime or tragedy. Meddling in private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
  • Not intentionally alter or attempt to alter or influence events.
  • Maintain the integrity of the content and context of photographic images in the editing process. 
  • Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
  • Do not accept gifts, favours or compensation from those who may seek to influence coverage.
  • Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
  • Do not engage in harassing behaviour of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behaviour in all professional interactions. 

Ideally, they should also:

  • Commit to ensuring that the public’s activities are conducted in public, upholding access rights for all journalists. 
  • Think proactively as a student of psychology, sociology, politics and art to develop a unique vision and presentation. Working with an appetite for current events and contemporary visual media.
  • Seeking full and unrestricted access to subjects, recommending alternatives to superficial or rushed opportunities.
  • Avoiding political, civic and corporate involvement or other employment that compromises or gives the appearance of compromising one’s journalistic independence.
  • Strive to be discreet and humble in dealing with subjects.
  • Respect the integrity of the photographic moment. 
  • Strive by example and influence to maintain the spirit and high standards expressed in this code. When faced with situations where the correct action is unclear, seek the advice of those who exhibit the highest standards of the profession. Visual journalists should continually study their craft and the ethics that guide it. 
Fifteen year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot dead by police on January 19th, 2010 – Is this photo by Paul Hansen ethical?

With the technological revolution, however, every citizen nowadays can occasionally turn into a photojournalist, especially with the help of his or her mobile phone. Confronted with this new reality, the philosophical question of ethics changes, giving rise to two new positions, between those who feel morally obliged to post an image in order to provoke a reaction and hoping to bring justice to the victims, and those who believe that disseminating such an image is disrespectful and only contributes to an instrumentalisation, in some cases even political, of it and to a ‘pornography of tragedy’. 

In the internet age, the systems of production, dissemination, use and sharing of images have contributed to increasing the power of the digital image. There is therefore an amplification of the involvement, in part even active, of millions of users, of the value of the image as testimony and of the ideological consequences that result. 

There is, however, a paradoxical aspect in the potential of the Web to be considered, namely the concept of violation of individual privacy that is opposed to the freedom of citizen journalism. One can report a crime but at the same time this involves defamation, the defence of a victim of abuse and at the same time the risk of the exposure of an innocent person to the virtual pillory.


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