Photojournalism and ethics – How far would you go for a photo? Duckrabbit takes Pulitzer Center to task over ethics

Benjamin Chesterton from duckrabbit alerted me to the following story. He has just published his views on A Developing Story with quotes from his letter to the Pulitzer Centre.

Briefly, and according to Chesterton: “The Center has recently funded the photographer Macro Venaschi to do a story on child sacrifice in Uganda. His highly stylized black and white photographs are deeply disturbing on a number of levels. One of the pictures shows an abused boy with a catheter protruding from where his penis has been cut off. I believe that if published in the UK, this picture would be illegal on the basis of indecency. Beyond that, there is an account on the Pulitzer website of how Vernashi persuaded grieving parents to have their murdered child’s body exhumed so that he could take photographs of the body. A payment was then made to those present.

The Pulitzer Center (whose work in the past I have admired) seems to have no ethical issue with this act since it was brought to their attention almost a week ago, their response was to publish Vernashi’s account of the event… However that these actions are sanctioned by a highly respected institution is deeply disturbing. The end result is that photographers will believe that in capturing the story there is virtually no act that is unethical. The end always justifies the means.”

There are a lot of points to be made in relation to this incident, which I hope those who are interested in the ethics involved in photojournalism will take a moment or two to think carefully about. Since Chesterton posted the story, there have been some comments, please visit the original post, Pulitzer Center Crisis in Ethics, link below, for them.

I am no legal expert, especially when it comes to human rights and law, so I decided to source a comment about this from a political theorist’s point of view so as to present another angle. He did his PhD (finished 2008) on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the University of Southampton.

Please read the post, Pulitzer Center Crisis in Ethics on the website, A Developing Story, before reading this response, otherwise it won’t make sense.

He said: “International human rights treaties are not applicable to this case. The reasons are, firstly, that individuals do not have legal standing (so called, locus standi) in international law. Human rights, in the international legal context, are primarily rights held by individuals against states. Yet, as individuals lack legal standing, only states can make complaints against such violations by other states. As the Ugandan government was not involved in this case, we are not dealing with a human rights violation in the sense of international law. (Some legal scholars have argued that states nevertheless have a duty, under due diligence, to enforce human rights in their domestic legal systems and amongst their citizens, but this is a complex and still disputed issue). Thirdly, human rights treaties are stifled in that their ratifications were qualified by numerous reservations, and their actual implementation is not subject to enforceable binding legal obligations. Domestic jurisdiction is, on the whole, beyond the purview of international law. Exceptions to this would be systematic gross violations of fundamental human rights, which the case in question does certainly not constitute.

“Within the context of the European Convention of Human Rights, individuals do have legal standing, but I question whether a case can be made for an incident which took place in Uganda and involves an US photographer. However, this is beyond my area of competence. If crimes took place in Uganda, such as illegal exhumation, then these would have to be assessed under Ugandan law, in the first place.

“However, there is a lot of food for thought. As to the publication of these images, some speculative thoughts, though the relevant legislation is beyond my expertise. Images of mutilation, it can be argued, are not ‘pornographic’. I wonder whether these images can be considered obscene, in a legal context, as this term generally means ‘tending to deprave and corrupt persons likely to read see or hear the material’. It could be argued that the pictures do not deprave and corrupt individuals, but, rather, provide them with an increased awareness of the plight of the victims. The same argument applies to calling the pictures indecent, as the term, in a legal context, means ‘unbecoming, highly unsuitable or inappropriate, contrary to the fitness of things, in extremely bad taste, unseemly’. There are numerous images of the Holocaust in which the genitalia of often mutilated corpses can be seen, and these images are generally not subject to censorship, but are merely accompanied by warnings for those of a more sensitive predisposition. However, whether the British press, for example, would have published such graphic pictures of a British child is an interesting question. We may have become numb to reports of atrocities and mutilation in Africa, and it does appear as if there are two standards of decency, one for the sheltered Westerner, and another for the inhabitant of the ‘dark continent’. Yet, one would have to comparable instances of mutilation in Western societies and survey press reactions. This becomes an empirical issue. However, how the photographer obtained the pictures is questionable from an ethical point of view, but this is another complex issue and I’d rather leave this can of worms.”

Chesterton responded with: “Interesting point of view though I think he misses the point! I think this is a case of someone applying their expertise to what is not actually written? The post was predominantly about ethics, and not law.

“I did not state anywhere that image of mutilation is pornographic so where there comes from I’m not sure? I did say I thought the image of the boy was indecent. The holocaust analogy is off the mark because when I was refering to ‘indecency’ that was about an image of a living three year old boy, not a corpse. I did not argue that photographing the corpse was indecent, but that the act of asking the parents to dig up the body and then paying them was wrong.

“I quoted from the convention of human rights, which is a guide for ethical conduct but did not state anywhere it can be applied as law to this case, so I’m not sure where that passage of thought comes from? I did quote Ugandan law. And yes there have been cases in the UK. Most famously Victoria Climbie. I can assure the theorist that the press does not publish such photos of Western Children in the same way, but I guess I could be proven wrong on that. Nothing surprises me these days!”

To which said political theorist replied: “I did mention pornographic, indecent and obscene, as these are the three legal criteria required for censorship, and I assessed the image in view of these three criteria. However, you are quite right in pointing out that you did not, strictly speaking, argue that human rights law is applicable to this case, but then again, I think it misleading to quote human rights law either to make an ethical point applicable to Western codes of journalistic conduct or to assess a crime that took place in Uganda. It can be wrong to dig up a body for a good photograph, but then do you need to quote human rights law to make this point? My remarks regarding the alleged indecency of the image are relevant in an ethical context also. A utilitarian, for example, could even argue that digging up the body and shooting a picture to increase awareness could increase aggregate happiness.

“I do not think that my holocaust comments were wholly beside the point, as my point is that it is the graphic and, arguably, indecent nature of the image which is an issue, regardless of whether the subject is dead or alive. And I am certain that one could find ‘indecent’ pictures of victims of the holocaust who were not dead at the time of their publication, indeed, some could even be alive today, but whose images were shown regardless because they created an awareness of human depravity and a warning for future generations.”


4 responses to “Photojournalism and ethics – How far would you go for a photo? Duckrabbit takes Pulitzer Center to task over ethics

  1. Hi Miranda, this is an excellent post which offers a different perspective.

    Many of the most powerful images in recent years have not been graphic but have had impact.

    My real point is if you can take photo without causing pain and distress and that photo have the same impact than why do it?





    Please see my statement on Untold Stories regarding this matter, which includes a new statement from the Pulitzer Center and links to video interviews with the mother of Margaret Babirye Nankya and Richard Omongole, a Ugandan lawyer and former country director for Amnesty International.


  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Photojournalism and ethics – How far would you go for a photo? Duckrabbit takes Pulitzer Center to task over ethics « HotBlog: Fresh Perspectives on Contemporary Photography --

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