Can pictures tell a thousand words?

The profession of photojournalism – an investigation into objectivity, principles and ethics



Jabaliya Refugee Camp, Ahmed Jadallah (Rueters)

In 2004 Ahmed Jadallah won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for his image of refugees in the Gaza Strip. The picture was taken in March 2003 in the aftermath of an Isreali tank attack in Jabalya refugee camp. At the time Jadallah and his group had been hit by a bomb. Jadallah describes the incident stating “It’s really hard, you know, to see people dying in front of you and I was feeling that I was also dying.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 200) He then describes a big hole opening up in the ground and he felt he was falling. After waking up he realised he too was injured. “My legs had been broken, I thought I was dying, and I couldn’t move but I did my job and I took pictures of the dead people beside me.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 201) Ahmed Jadallah’s picture captures the horrific scene, the brutal reality, the chaos and the sad truth of death and conflict. Jadallah claims there were no gunmen in the vicinity when they were attacked, only civilians. Ahmed Jadallah’s story, like many other photojournalists, allow us to see the need for photojournalism as a powerful voice within society as well as the danger of the profession and ethical and moral issues involved. “For me I don’t have any power, only the hope that there is change and only the ability to try my best as a journalist, as a photographer to show what is going on.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 203)Jadallah’s humble words poignantly reflect the essential role of photojournalism – to inform and educate the world.


 Howard Chapnick wrote in 1995 that “the element in news or journalist photography cannot be moved, reordered, reconstructed, directed, manipulated or managed. The journalistic photographer photographs what is, not what was or what might have been.” (cited in Lester, 1999) While these words seem quite idealistic, there are many incidences throughout time where photographers have been manipulated or staged photos yet these photos have still become powerful icons. By examining the complexities of the profession of photojournalism we can see how values of photojournalism such as subject matter, timelessness, repetition, objectivity and ethics differ from that of traditional journalism. We can also examine how the relation between the camera, photographer and photo allows photojournalism to capture important elements of truth and the reality of humanities actions.


In US photojournalist, Mark Hancock’s blog (2009) he describes photojournalism as the visual reporting of facts. He argues that while journalists tell stories and photographers take pictures of nouns, “a photojournalist takes the best of both and locks it into the most powerful medium available – frozen image.”  The written word has power and with skill reporters can expose dark deeds and bring them into the light, However, journalism is limited to timelessness, proximity, newsworthiness and accessibility. Photojournalism, on the other hand, is the discipline that captures verbs and destroys almost all barriers between the viewer and the creator. “Justice can draw its sword in the time it takes an eye to scan an image. An image has no age, language or intelligence limits.” (Hancock, 2009)


Eddie Adams relays this sentiment in the statement “photography is the only thing in the world where there is instant communication and I think that the still photo is the most powerful weapon in the world, bar none … A photograph is here today. It is there tomorrow, it is in the history books and that image that split second image remains in your mind because you look at it and you study it.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p.7) Photojournalism’s uniqueness is that it allows us to understand the world we cannot see for ourselves. A world that sometimes words just cannot describe. The photographs of famine victims in Sudan in 1993 taken by James Nachtwey clearly demonstrate Adam’s argument. The photo of a starving man moving towards an emergency feeding station is particularly memorable. The man is naked, alone and clearly in a deathly state. He is on his hands and knees crawling and visibly struggling to get to the feeding centre. In the background there is a simple and, what looks to be, abandon shack . The ground is bare and dusty adding to the sense of nothingness. Nachtwey said that in “Sudan, the denial of food was used as a weapon of mass destruction and vast numbers of people were subjected to slow death by starvation and disease.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 210) While these words inform us of the situation, the image portrays the emotional reality. The image induces feelings and confronts the viewer, making them question why this is happening.


Ron Haviv explains that in war zones the profession of photojournalism differs from that of journalism. He believes there is less a sense of competition, there is not as much need for a photojournalist to get the “scoop”. In some situations he claims different photographers from differing companies work together as a team. This notion often exists for safety reasons and also because of the need to report on these horrific events and get as much media attention as possible so that the world can know what is really going on. Ron Haviv, describing his work, states “they are our friends, we trust them, we do good work together and the objective is for the image to be seen by as many people as possible – just having one magazine or two magazines publishing the image is not going to do it.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 188) The idea of repetition in the media is often criticised as journalists are encouraged to find news which is breaking, fresh and new. However repetition adds to the power of photojournalism. Repetition gives the images strength. “It’s hard to take an image of war or famine that can differentiate that particular war or famine from any other… but that becomes power. Why are we still taking these photos? Cause it’s still happening. Wouldn’t it be great not to see these pictures anymore?” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 192) The profession of photojournalism highlights not only the situation but that these situations are not in isolation, when we look at a picture of the dead in the Gaza Strip by Ahmed Jadallah or the photos Glen Middleton has taken of the camps in Goma, Rwanda, they are the same. They are of death and human suffering. While the locations differ the basic human condition is evident. Middleton said, of one of his pictures from Goma, “it was scenes like this that woke us each morning, the dead were laid out for collection, unidentified and unwanted.” (cited in Leith 2004) The harsh reality is that this photo caption in many incidents is universal and this message is what Haviv believes the profession of photojournalism tried to ingrain in society.


“Credibility, responsibility. These words give us the right to call photography a profession rather than a business.” These words by Chapnick (cited in Lester, 1999) allow us to see how crucial it is that photojournalists maintain principles such as credibility and their need to uphold responsibility. In order to uphold their position within society and be seen as an important tool of communication principles must be followed by all professionals.  Lack of ethic philosophies inevitability diminishes photographers’ journalistic impact. Delivering the truth is an important responsibility that allows photojournalists to be seen as credible. When discussing objectivity and truthfulness in his work in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Jadallah claims that when he makes an image he tries to get a strong clear picture that conveys what is going on. He believes he is totally objective. “(My aim) is to tell the truth. It has to be accurate and unbiased – just the truth.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p.203)   However the nature of the perception of truth in photojournalism is complex. Jadallah states “I feel like I can just cover what I see because most of the time everything is reality. If I cover a house being destroyed, what bias could there be in covering it? It is a destroyed house.” (ibid) There is a fine line between subject choice and subjectivity. The decision to take a certain picture or shed light on a certain event definitely can shape how it is perceived to the viewer. In Jadallah’s example, we can see he has chosen to cover the destroyed house instead of subjects that may have just as much relevance to the audience.   What must be asked is why did Jadallah choose this particular image? And what did Jadallah decided not to take a photograph of? Therefore the photographer has more power over what is portrayed than viewers initially realise. In print journalism, biased and emotive words are easily detected, yet in comparison photos that may not be telling the full story or may have motivation behind them are harder to distinguish for those that are truthful. Evans supports this argument believing that “the photographer is the first filter of reality, selecting the moment and the composition which fits whatever it is he feels is the essence of the story.” (1997, p.i)


Bourdieu’s theories of plotting the field examine how the creative production doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Artists make their work and position it and themselves according to what they see as possible and as being in their best interest at a given moment. This field theory allows us to see how the construction of photographs and the choice of subject matter do not always happen in isolation. Everyone has their own preconceptions which therefore becomes a reconstruction tool just as much as much as Photoshop or computer technology. The photographer can subconsciously manipulate, reorder and reconstruct an image simply by having their own cultural context.


Clarke (1997) believes that when reading photography a viewer enters into a series of hidden relationships. A viewer not only sees the image but they are also asked to “read it as an active play of visual language.” The visual language he discusses has two aspects; the first aspect is to remember the photo is the product of a photographer. Similar to Bourdieu’s theory, which indicates everyone has their own contextuality, Clarke argues a photo is always the reflection of a specific point of view. This point of view could be aesthetic, polemical, political or ideological. “One never takes a photo in any passive sense. To take is active. The photographer imposes, steals, recreates the scene according to a cultural discourse.” (Clarke, 1997) This therefore demonstrates that in photojournalism true objectivity is more complex in practice than it is in theory. Everybody has their own cultural discourse that subconsciously governs what they do, how they feel and how they view certain event s. This therefore makes the image just as much “a reflection of the ‘I’ of the photographer as it is the ‘eye’ of the camera.” (ibid)


As Chapnick writes “the journalistic photographer photographs what is,” in actual fact this is more an aspiration to which photojournalism should aim to achieve. However the nature of human-kind, as well as the nature of the profession, means that in some incidences this is not necessarily the case. “The camera cannot lie but it can be an accessory to untruth.” (Evans, 1997, p.i) As photojournalism gives audiences a poignant glimpse into the emotional realities of human condition this makes the search for objectivity an important professional practice. Images evoke almost immediate emotional responses among viewers, pictures have tremendous impact. Visual messages and well chosen words combine to educate, entertain and persuade. Yet on the flip side they have the power to also offend, shock, misled, stereotype and confuse.  Photojournalists hold great responsibility to be as fair and as unbiased as they possibly can in their representations. The lack of truth and presentation of misleading information would be the death of photojournalism. Once the public’s faith diminishes and a person can no longer truly believe what they are shown, the ability for images to evoke messages and tell stories becomes obsolete. In reflecting the power and responsibility of photojournalists and the risks associated with the profession, Evan’s states “Bullies can be shown as men of charity, the pompous as folksy, friends as enemies, honest girls as tarts.” (1997, p.i)


While, there is a danger of photos being too biased, at the same time the subjectivity adds to the impact a photo can have. It allows the viewer to feel. It stirs up passion, it can shock, it can create reaction, which in turn can encourage a person to change their way of thinking. W. Eugene Smith said “Let truth be the prejudice” (cited in Lester, 1999) Truth is the guiding principle – not layout efficiency, not magazine cover eye-catching ability, not political persuasion, but truth. “When truth is the prejudice, photographs and the stories behind them can be easily defended and are a source for humanistic concern or inspiration.” (Lester, 1999)


The role of the photojournalist seems fairly simple on the surface to get to the scene, frame and focus the shot, collect the information, process then select the photos for print. Yet behind these fundamental tasks lie broader ethical considerations – when do photojournalists stop being image-gathers and put the camera down to adopt another role?



In a profession with undefined and blurred guidelines, ethics and moral responsibility becomes a person’s decision at the time. There is always more to the story than can be outlined in written guiding principles. In Collingride’s response we can see that concern for his own safety as well as compromising his own objectivity were reasons that caused him to act the way he did. He did what he felt was right for the situation at the time. When viewing an image a responder must realise that there is often more to the story and that in many cases the moral ends justifies the means. The complex nature of the profession, together with the lack of formal rules can haze the lines between the professional and personal response to a state of affairs.


Denise Leith claims that photojournalism is a profession that is continually being challenged professional and personal by issues. “Do you pick up the starving child, do you give your sandwich and bottle of water to someone in dire need, do you take a wounded civilian to the hospital?” (2004, p. xvi) While these questions may sound simple, when you are in the presence of devastation it is hard to know how to act. Urging responders to feel for the photographers predicament, Leith argues that in these circumstances “You may think that you know. You may hope that you would behave honorably. But you cannot be absolutely certain that you would be the person you would like to be.” (2004)


A photojournalist is torn between the moments where they put down their camera to assist and when they decide the greatest assistance they can give is to get the pictures to the world. James Nachtwey says there is no photo he would not take. Arguing that “If all the photographers who entered the concentration camps at the end of World War II had turned away in horror from making images – as some did – then essentially documentation of that time in history would have been lost.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. xviii) However, others believe there are times when one should self-censor. Eddie Adams did not take a photograph of a petrified solder in battle because he believed the picture would have branded the boy a coward and ultimately ruin his career. Adams self-censored and did not take the photo despite believing the image “would have told the whole story of the war.” (ibid)


Christopher Morris, arguing against Ron Haviv’s earlier comments of not being a competitive profession, believes that photojournalism can be a selfish business, if you want to win awards you become a war photographer. He states “War is where the most amazing pictures are to be made because that is where life and death collide.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 276) The underlying motivation for recognition can therefore sometimes cloud ethical concerns. Eddie Adams reiterates this idea by stating “I never said that I have really been on a mission like some photographers. I think many of them are full of shit, with how they are going to save the world with their pictures. They go to war because they want good pictures. They want the recognition.” (cited in Leith, 2004, p. 2) Like all professions photojournalism also has it cynical and self-promoting side which can lead to lack of maintaining ethical guidelines.




Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford, Oxford University Press, accessed May 28,


Dunn, P. (1988) Press Photography, Oxford Illustrated Press, England


Evans, H. (1997) From picture to page: photojournalism, graphics and picture editing, Random House, London


Hancock, M. (2009) Photojournalism Blog, United States, accessed May 28

Leith, D. (2004) Bearing Witness – the lives of war correspondents and photojournalists, Random House, Sydney 


Lester, P. (1999) Photojournalism; An ethical approach, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey, Accessed May 10


Walller, M (2000) A Bigger Picture; a manual of photojournalism in Southern Africa, Juta and Co Ltd. Kenwyn.


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Filed under Journalism, Photojournalism

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