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Exploring the fine line of tragedy coverage in photojournalism: Who will decide where to draw the line?

Nowadays, coverage is mostly limited to show sensational negativity. Some may think that photographs of burning pyres were essential to show the world how much India has suffered. But, at the same time, it is the responsibility of those who shot the disaster to show how we emerged as heroes.

It has been almost 15 years since I first held the camera as a hobby. Being in the field as a professional photographer for few years and shifting the genre of work completely to writing, I have the experience of both the person behind the camera and the one who is looking at the results. There was a time I did some street photography, and that was the time when I, for the first time, felt the dilemma that everyone talks about. Even as a professional photographer, there was always a chance that I may offend someone, and I did miss some shots that could have been amazing if seen from my perspective.

Photojournalism and the fine line of ethics

The profession of a photojournalist is the most loved and hated one at the same time. A single shot can bring you both immense love and overwhelming hate from different sections of society. To be honest, in photojournalism, there is no grey area. It is either black or white. You cannot be neutral while looking at someone’s work in this field.

When I started writing this op-ed, the first name that came to my mind was one of the most famous photojournalists in the history of independent India, Raghu Rai. I know him as the person who brought the pain of the victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy in front of the people. His iconic coverage of the tragedy made it possible for the people of the rest of the world to see how much devastation that one night had brought.

A few years back, I got a chance to attend a lecture by Raghu Rai. During the lecture, he discussed the coverage he had done after Bhopal Gas Tragedy. He said at that time, there was no time to think. He was numb and clicking photos continuously. “It was my job, and I was doing it dedicatedly,” he said. One of his shots, the last rites of a dead unknown child, became one of many heart-wrenching faces of the tragedy. If it was not for Raghu Rai and his fellow photojournalists who were on the ground, we might never know how big the tragedy was.

He once said about the photograph, “It was a heart-rending situation. His was an innocent face, and usually, when you see a dead person, their eyes are closed, but that child had his eyes wide open, and his family members were giving the last caress to him.” But can coverage of one tragedy justify the scenario that is being created in today’s time?

It is not possible for me alone as a photographer and a writer to justify the stand of every party involved. To make sure I understand the viewpoint of a photojournalist and other photographers, it was my duty, as a photographer, to talk, discuss and understand the viewpoints. I spoke to four photographers, learned their views and spoke to them about what they think about the ethics in photojournalism and if there should be a line.

Capt Suresh Sharma, Veteran, Indian Army and Wildlife Photographer

Capt Suresh Sharma is an Indian army veteran who has served in peacemaking operations of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. He is a wildlife photographer, snake rescuer and nature conservationist. I have known Captain for a very long time, and when it comes to ethics, I do not think there is anyone better than an Army officer to talk about how important they are.

Himanshu Khagta, Entrepreneur and photographer.

Himanshu Khagta is one of the best photographers I have come across. His work as a travel photographer across the Himalayan region has attracted praise from all across the world. Currently, he is working as an entrepreneur selling apples and other produce from his farm and as a photographer. He spends most of his time in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

Vijay Singh Bainsla, Political Leader and Photographer by passion

Vijay Singh Bainsla is known as the face of the Gurjar community. Though he is best known as a political leader in Rajasthan, many do not know he is a brilliant photographer by passion for over two decades. Knowing him on a personal level for a long time gave me a perspective about the clarity he has about professionalism and ethics in any field, including politics.

Raminder Pal Singh, Freelance photojournalist

Raminder Pal Singh is a well-known photojournalist from Amritsar. Raminder has worked with a European photo agency for 16 years, and now he works as a freelance photojournalist. Talking to a photojournalist gives you a perspective that you might have been missing all that time. During the 30-minute conversation we had about the field of photojournalism and how he felt losing a fellow photojournalist to terrorists explained a lot about what goes in their minds while being on one of the most challenging jobs.

As I move forward, I would quote them often to explain what ethics say and how they and I interpreted them. However, one thing that is clear before proceeding ahead is photojournalism is not possible without ethics.

Ethics in photojournalism as defined by experts

Let us talk about the ethics that have been written and explained repeatedly for the photojournalists. These ethics, if followed diligently, will cancel the over-sensationalising of the news reports forever. But, unfortunately, the scene is entirely different everywhere.

Respect the truth

The first rule is to respect the truth. The first and foremost duty of a photojournalist to do is to show the truth and nothing but the truth. Raminder put up a crucial point while our discussion that photojournalists cannot be biased. They cannot have opinions. When a photojournalist goes into the field, the only aim should be to show the truth, cover it, and return. During the shoot, there should be no opinions running in your mind. There are consequences to revealing the truth, and he or she must be prepared to face them.

Sources are must

You must double and triple check the source before you submit the work. If the details of the incident are not verified and documents as they are, it can create a major law and order problem in the state. A photojournalist has the power to create the narrative. However, he or she should not do it. A non-biased explanation of the event with the photograph is what a photojournalist should submit.

The source must be traceable

If you are saying ‘xyz’ did ‘abc’ in the description as informed by ‘ijk’, the source should be traceable. There should be proof of anything and everything you are submitting. How editors and writers are going to interpret what you have clicked is not in your hand. But whatever is in your hand should be non-biased at any cost.

Do not create a photograph, click a photograph

As a commercial photographer, you can set up the studio as you please. However, when you are in the field, things are different. Himanshu said that though there must be no line in photojournalism as facts must come out in public, “if the photojournalist is twisting the facts by any means with the photographs, it is against the ethics.” There have been countless incidences in the past where so-called editorial photographs went viral, but in the end, it was revealed that they were staged. In that case, the photojournalist had committed an unethical practice that should be condemned.

It is essential that photojournalists follow a sense of responsibility. If someone is in distress, it is your utmost duty to help them especially if no one is around to help. However, in my opinion, if there are enough helping hands who have already come forward to provide the support required, you may step back and do your job from a distance. Show the tragedy and the heroes who come forward to help to ensure every aspect of the story is covered.

Here, the example of the infamous photograph by Kevin Carter of a malnourished child in 1993 in Sudan will be the perfect example. In the shot, the child, who was trying to reach the UN centre to get food, collapsed on the way. A vulture could be seen in the shot, waiting for the child to die. Carter won Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. However, it is believed that the heaviness that this particular shot brought to his life led to his suicide. The child, who was thought to be a girl and later found to be a boy, survived. He was identified as Kong Nyong, who survived the famine but later died of fever in 2007. On the one hand, Carter was praised for the photograph, but on the other hand, he faced severe criticism. 

The vulture and the little girl by Kevin Carter

Respect the personal space

One of the most important aspects of photojournalism is to respect personal space. Raminder, as a photojournalist, has faced a dilemma countless times. He said when he went to cover the arrival of mortal remains of dead soldiers or covered someone’s death or moment of grief, “there were many moments when I missed shots. I was asked by many not to stop. I have seen a lot of photojournalists pushing their ways to shoot photographs. But I could not do it. If someone ever asked me to stop, I stopped.”

He added, “I have seen a lot of photojournalists unable to stand a grief-filled environment. Some couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” He narrated the story of the time when he went to cover the arrival of the mortal remains of a soldier for the first time. “I was overwhelmed by the emotions around me. There was a moment when I had to sit down to control my emotions. For me, respecting the sentiments of the family holds utmost importance. If they tell you to stop, the best thing you can do is to walk away and let them grieve.”

Treating the subjects with respect and dignity is what every photojournalist should practice. Intruding in someone’s personal space should be avoided unless there is a justifiable and pressing reason for their public disclosure. There had been countless moments when national and international media covered last rites in the past. In recent times, the last rites of Late Sushma Swaraj, Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Late Rishi Kapoor and several other leaders and celebrities were covered by media, and many became part of the event while watching it from home.

So the question that one may ask is how last rites of one person are okay to telecast, but people outrage when the same happened during the second wave of Covid-19? The issue in the latter is the way those images were presented. One cannot forget and forgive Annie Gowen for calling photographs of Covid-19 deaths “stunning”. Interestingly, she said she used the word in the context of “shocking”. If you live in India, ask anyone to use stunning in a sentence, and he/she will use it positively. Using a word that is used as something good or positive in a negative sense is not someone who holds such an ‘esteem’ post would do unless there were an agenda behind it. Sadly, Gowen is not the only one to take advantage of the tragedies during the second wave of Covid-19. Indian journalists were among the frontrunners to cover dead bodies and that too in a very vulture-like way. 

Do not push for superficial consent or permission

As a photojournalist, there is always a desire to get the ‘best shots’ of the situation irrespective of what the subjects may think. In general, it is believed, and many times followed, that one must take the subject’s permission to click a photograph. It gives a sense of satisfaction to the photographer that he or she is doing the right thing. However, Captain Suresh believes that in many cases, the subjects do not have the courage or presence of mind to say no to the photographer.

He said, “One should never make an attempt to take permission of someone who won’t say no out of courtesy but will certainly take away some fun or comfort of his.” A family enjoying a picnic in a garden during the winter season may seem a brilliant subject to a photojournalist. A photograph of the family with the caption “In the age when no one has time, a family was seen enjoying quality family time” may attract a lot of praise. However, in most cases, families do not like getting intruded on by photographers. Taking their permission will only be a cover for something you should not have done in the first place.

The family may permit you to click, and you may sell the photograph for a good amount, there will always be a hidden grudge against you for intruding on their privacy. Thus, “Never push a person for permission even though it looks courteous but only superficially,” Captain Suresh added.

Captain narrated a story from one of his trips to Pushkar Cattle Fair. He said, “An old man had just started having his meal sitting on the ground in the sand. Almost 15 to 20 photographers encircled him from two sides – it was funny and hurtful to watch these photographers like vultures, half on one side and another half on the other side – they were almost shouting – Babba Iddhaar dekhna, the moment he would see on the left the right bunch of photographers would shout – Baba Idhar dekhna…without any patience and respect for his mealtime. After a few such turns and twists to his neck, he lost his cool and got up and threw his plate on the ground and screamed – Roti bhi khane do… Baba idhar dekh udhaar dekh … (At least let me eat, Baba look here, baba look there).”

“I knew one day photographers would lose respect in the field, and at Pushkar, they have already, and in most other places, photographers are disliked and discouraged. I stopped going to Pushkar as it’s no fun to be a photographer there. On my arrival, I used to roam around without a camera for two days and choose men and camels whom I would find charming for photos shoot by enjoying tea with them and break bread. I used to carry milk and veggies for them. Patience and respect your subject. Never shove your camera into their life,” he added.

Do not try to change the course of an event

A photojournalist must present the facts as they are. There should be no attempt to twist the facts in someone’s favour. Let me give you a very recent example. There was a report that a police officer allegedly assaulted a woman in Uttar Pradesh. The photo went viral on social media in a matter of hours. However, the truth was not what it looked like in the image. The woman had pulled the police personnel from his collar and tried to play the victim. Similarly, there had been countless incidents where photos represented a different story just because the caption was misleading. As a photojournalist, you should not indulge in such activities.

Be careful with the captions

Vijay Singh Bainsla was clear about the fact that when it comes to photojournalism, the only thing that photo must show is the truth. Though Bainsla echoed what Khagta said about not having a limit to what photojournalists show, he also agreed that if the photojournalist is trying to twist the facts, he is cheating on his/her profession. “You cannot distort the facts. If something has happened in a way, you must show it without creating a story in your mind. Let the readers interpret it in the way they want to.”

Raminder talked about several examples that gave a clear picture of how a photojournalist should caption the photographs. He said, “Imagine you clicked a photograph of a child eating ice cream. In that case, you cannot say ‘Child enjoying ice cream’. How can you be sure that the kid enjoys eating ice cream? The caption must be ‘Child eating ice cream’. Let the viewers decide if the kid is enjoying it or not.

“Similarly, if someone is walking in the rain and you clicked a photograph, the caption cannot be ‘man/woman enjoying the rain’. What if the person had a tragedy at his/her house? How can you be sure that person is not crying while walking in the rain? The caption must be ‘man/woman walking in the rain’. Nothing more or nothing less,” he said.

Do not set up a situation or modify the image that may hide the truth

How many times have you come across a staged photograph? To be honest, you see such images every day in commercials. However, when it comes to photojournalism, the photographs must be more or less SOTC, i.e. Straight Out of The Camera. News agencies do allow their photographers to colour correct the images before submitting them but manipulating an image is not permitted.

One of the examples that I can think of is from 2014 when Narciso Contreras, A Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, was fired by the Associated Press news agency after he admitted to removing another photographer’s camera from one of the photographs of a Syrian rebel. He used a technique called cloning in which a part of the scene is picked from another photograph in order to hide a portion of the photograph.

Similarly, in 2013, Nikon had to pull down an award-winning photograph by Yu Wei after they realised that it was a manipulated photograph. The caption of the photograph suggested Wei captured the image when he noticed a plane in mid-air while shooting through a window, but in reality, it was quite visible that the aircraft was added later to the photograph.

Also, staging a photograph is strictly prohibited when it comes to photojournalism. While commercial, wedding and studio photographers can ask subjects to pose as per their choice, you cannot do so as a photojournalist. You must not tell the subject to change expressions, pose, or location as it may change the tone of the message the situation should project.

Remember the iconic photograph of Ashok Parmar (alias Ashok Mochi) posing as a rioter during the 2002 riots? India Times, in a report, revealed in 2016 that that post was a staged one. Parmar had said, “I had a beard which was making me look like a Muslim. I tied a saffron cloth around my forehead to save myself. Meanwhile, a photographer (Sebastian D’Souza from Mumbai Mirror) approached me asked me to pose like a rioter. I picked up an iron rod to show how angry I am. The next day I saw myself on the front page of almost all publications. Since then, I became the villain and face of Gujarat riots across the world. The photo landed me in jail for 14 days. Later, I was acquitted by a lower court because there was not a single bit of evidence to show my participation in the massacre.”

Interestingly, Parmar was not even part of the riots. He was a “broken heart” back then whose girlfriend had left him a few days before the Godhra incident happened. Photographer Sebastian D’Souza allegedly asked him to pose. It was a staged photograph. That photograph of Parmar should not have happened. There are countless such photographs that were staged and projected the wrong message to the viewers.

Share all the information with the editor to avoid misinterpretations or wrongful use

One of the jobs of the photojournalist is to provide correct and unbiased information about the photograph to the editor. It is his/her duty to convey what exactly happened at the scene and not include any interpretation or ideology depicting the details. It helps in providing the right context to the image. If a photojournalist fails to provide the information, the photos can become disastrous in no time.

Wrong publication can put you in trouble

How agencies can manipulate the stories that photographs should represent can easily be depicted by one of the cases where a staged photograph that was clearly marked as a staged by the photographer went viral on social media as an original incident. A photographer in Saudi Arabia staged a photograph of a child sleeping in the middle of two graves.

AFP quoted the photographer Abdulaziz Alotaibi, who staged the image, saying, “the aim had been to take a distinctive picture that would remain in people’s minds.” It was shot near the port city of Yanbu as part of an art project themed around orphaned children. It featured his 9-year-old nephew, Ibrahim Alotaibi. The photograph somehow went viral as a child from war-struck Syria “who had lost his both parents.” The same thing happens to hundreds and thousands of other photographs that were clicked with different intentions but ended up representing a whole other story just because the agency chose to do so.

The reasons behind the ‘kill the conscience’ mode

Some photojournalists have described the profession as something similar to vultures. They thrive on stories that can become a sensation. However, how far is it fair to blame the photojournalists? Captain Suresh believes not all photojournalists are willing to kill their souls to shoot photographs. He said, “There can be a number of reasons that push a photojournalist to become soul-less and thick-skinned. The first reason is the temptation to get awarded and become famous. Not all photojournalists do well in their field, and they need that ‘one shot’ that could make them famous overnight. The temptation to get that shot sometimes makes the photographer thick-skinned or say a dead soul. They stop listening to their conscience and do whatever it takes to get the shot.”

The other reason, he said, “The blame goes to the editors and the bosses. There is so much pressure to bring TRP and readership that the bosses and the editors push the photojournalist to bring ‘spicy stories’ on their desks. For such editors, it does not matter how far the photojournalist has to go or how inhumane he has to behave with the subject. For the photojournalist, as a matter of fact, the situation becomes a matter of being ‘on the job’ or ‘out of a job’. If he says no, repeatedly, the editor will hire someone else.”

Who earns from the photos?

Himanshu talked about a very important aspect of photojournalism. He said, “Most of the photojournalists in the field are on monthly salary packages. They do not get a cut from the sale of the photographs that have been put in the marketplace. If the photograph is being sold from the account of an agency with a by-line to the photographer, there is a chance that the photographer is getting nothing other than a name from the sale. In such cases, blaming the photographer entirely for making money from someone’s misery would not be right. If he or she has presented the facts correctly, but the agency decides to sell it for a hefty amount online, it is the agency that must get the blame for making out-of-proportion profits.” In my opinion, the photographer, in some incidents should be blamed for being inhumane.

The two sides of the coin

There is always going to be two sides to the coin. Every photograph will get praise and criticism. If the photojournalist has shown the truth, his conscience will remain clean no matter how much hate he or she gets. However, if there is a slight chance that his or her ideology, faith or belief has anything to do with the composition of the shot, the blame gets directed to the photographer. There is a lot of difference between saying, “A man got lynched by a mob” and “A man from ‘a community’ got lynched by ‘another community’. The former gives the information, and the latter narrates the ideology. The former is the job of the photojournalist. The latter is in the hand of the writers, editors and readers.

Should tragedies become subject?

To make the answer as simple as possible, yes and no. Yes, because the world must know what has happened. No, because not everyone is capable of visualising the tragedy and capture it in an unbiased way. Covering tragedy must not become sensational news. It should not become the topic of debates monetising someone’s misery. I talked to a Bhopal Gas Tragedy survivor to get his views on the coverage that famous photographers like Raghu Rai did at that time. Mohammad Safdar Afaque was only four years old when the disastrous accident happened that killed thousands. The city, the survivors are still struggling with the consequences of the tragedy that had happened over 36 years ago.

Left: Burial of unknown child – Right top: An aborted foetus when the tragedy struck – Right bottom: Blinded by the gas leak. Copyright: Raghu Rai

When I asked him about his opinion on the coverage, if it should have happened and if it gives the actual picture, he said, “These are a limited exhibition of what actually Bhopal dealt with that time and still dealing with it. 3rd Dec is a historical date that has changed this city’s fate; economy, infra, politics, culture all changed due to this; as the focus changed to health and safety. Union Carbide factory still exists as a monument, but it has affected generations, not individuals. People suffered undefined losses. Compensation becomes a source of income for few but has not reached 100% who deserve it.”

He further added, “These photos might tell you a glimpse of what happened, what is happening, and are iconic for sure. Personally, I believe if these photographs were not there, the world might not even know about this incident.” Safdar believes coverage of a tragedy holds utmost importance. However, the story does not end there. How people came out of it, how they survived, how much they suffered and who emerged as the real heroes should be documents too. He said, “This is an incomplete picture that does not show the stories of real heroes who have risked their lives to save others. Though the aftermath has been covered for years, I still believe that what we are going through because of that one incident is mostly undocumented.” Safdar added that the incident was not limited to what happened on that day. The consequences, the horror and the wounds are still there not only on the bodies but on the souls.

My last two cents

Nowadays, coverage is mostly limited to show sensational negativity. Some may think that photographs of burning pyres were essential to show the world how much India has suffered. But, at the same time, it is the responsibility of those who shot the disaster to show how we emerged as heroes. It is their duty to show how India fought back and now doing everything to avert a tragedy like the second wave of Covid-19. It is their responsibility to show that e are getting back on our feet after the devastating second wave. It is their duty to tell the stories of the phoenixes who emerged as heroes from the ashes of the disaster. It is their responsibility to weed out those who profited from the tragedies and shame them.

It is their responsibility to tell the world the struggles of those who lost their loved ones but in a humane way. Those photographs of the burning pyres were never “stunning”, and they never would be. Moreover, there is a matter of consent. Did their families consent to their loved ones’ pictures being taken? Probably not. Was that ethical simply to show India in a negative light? Probably not.

The world, the photojournalists, the editors, the businessmen, the “activists”, and the leaders who called it stunning or those who saw it as an opportunity to mint money must understand that when tragedy hits you in the face, the world would not be sympathetic because of what they did when others suffered.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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