Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective

June 12, 2012 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography, politics

morality e1339485788495 Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective

The controversy surrounding Ron Haviv’s sale of an image for use in a Lockheed Martin advertisement raises a host of issues. A number have been covered in the original charge by duckrabbit, Haviv’s response, VII’s statement, and commentaries by BagNewsNotes, Stan Baros, Joerg Colberg, Stella Kramer and Jim Johnson. Wired’s Raw File blog summarised the debate in twenty tweets, which I collected on Storify.

Rather than revisit the specific issue or engage the details of those commentaries, I want to examine one of the larger points this controversy highlighted: what is the relationship between the individual and the collective in a photojournalism agency?

In Haviv’s statement he declared that his status as an individual practitioner was not synonymous with his being a VII photographer. He said none of the images in question were associated with VII, and that he draws “a strict line between my photojournalism and commercial campaigns.”

To see whether this split between the individual and the collective is normal or an aberration, and to explore how agencies committed to documentary photography and photojournalism deal with the ethics of the relationship between advertising and editorial, I interviewed the directors of NOOR, Panos Pictures and VII. I am grateful that Claudia Hinterseer of NOOR, Adrian Evans of Panos and Stephen Mayes of VII agreed to Skype interviews on June 1 (Hinterseer and Mayes) and June 7 (Evans). I also approached the director of advertising at Magnum, but unfortunately their web site contained out of date information, and the person named was  no longer able to speak for them.

What was immediately apparent is that those agencies are solely in the editorial business and have taken explicit decisions not to represent commercial work their member photographers might undertake. If photographers with those agencies undertake commercial work they often have separate commercial agents or distinct commercial arrangements that do not involve NOOR, Panos or VII. Both Evans and Mayes stated that they prefer to be informed of their photographers’ non-editorial work, but that happens less often than desired.

The amount of commercial work done by photographers associated with NOOR, Panos and VII varies greatly. Claudia Hinterseer said that few NOOR members are interested in commercial, while Stephen Mayes indicated that between one-half and three-quarters of VII photographers are pursuing or actively engaged in commercial work. Adrian Evans noted that some photographers do commercial work independently, and that Panos also works with some commercial clients, usually in the form of corporate social responsibility projects, if the agency thinks those projects are both substantive and consistent with its ethos.

What makes NOOR, Panos and VII distinctive in terms of documentary photography and photojournalism is that they each embody an ethos. NOOR has a strong statement on its web site declaring that “an abiding commitment to the fundamental power of photography to bear witness to the eternal struggle for human rights and social justice that form the foundational principles of NOOR.” The Panos site notes the agency specialises in “global social issues, driven by the vision and commitment of its photographers and staff. Panos is known internationally for its fresh and intelligent approach and respected for its integrity and willingness to pursue stories beyond the contemporary media agenda.” And during our interview, Stephen Mayes stressed that “honesty, integrity and humanitarianism” were the driving principles for VII.

These statements are testament to the fact, as Adrian Evans told me, that photojournalism often places itself on a moral high ground which makes it imperative for photojournalists to be very careful about the work they do and who they do it for. At the same time, given the split between editorial and commercial work, Evans said one of the problems from the agencies perspective is “how much control do you have over what your photographers do?”

So how do these agencies negotiate ethical problems when they don’t represent all of a photographer’s practice? Each of them has slightly different approaches that reflect, in part, their different organizational structures.

Owned by twelve members who are equal shareholders, NOOR has the clearest approach. In addition to having the strongest public statement of ethical and political concerns, it is the only one of these agencies to have a code of conduct. Hinterseer told me that NOOR members sign off on a statement that they subscribe to the National Press Photographers Association code of ethics, to which is added four additional requirements: that they conduct themselves at the highest professional level, that they understand they always represent the agency, that they must respect the people they photograph as well as their colleagues, and that they abide by the agreements between themselves and NOOR. Any violations are given a warning that is discussed at an AGM, and a severe violation would mean exclusion from NOOR.

Although it has a code, Claudia Hinterseer stressed that drawing the lines is not easy and that members have discussed these issues for hours at AGMs. The concerns can be quite practical. For example, when NOOR was being established and needed to open a bank account, they opted first for ABN-AMRO, until Kadir van Lohuizen argued that this bank was involved in the blood diamond issue he had been covering.

VII is a limited liability company with ten owners as shareholders, and thirteen non-owner members making up their list of photographers. While stressing they are motivated by humanitarian principles and have also had extensive discussions about how they can be implemented, Stephen Mayes said VII does not have a code of conduct with which to police their photographers. Mayes argued, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment” but that legislating for ethics was very difficult. Instead he observed that the “issue is one of awareness and being mindful.”

Panos is different again. Its ownership is via a shareholders agreement that gives the director 51% and the Panos Institute 49% control. That agreement includes a requirement that Panos Pictures not bring the Panos Institute into disrepute, though Adrian Evans stressed it was a general rather than prescriptive provision. At present Panos does not have contracts with its photographer members, but the agency is considering introducing them. And, in the wake of the Haviv controversy, he told me that they were now considering a general provision that would be akin to the agreement for NOOR members – that their photographers represent the agency and should not undertake work that would bring the agency into disrepute. Evans made the point that in many ways this would not be dissimilar to the common approach with agency clients, whereby they have to agree not to alter or misuse images.

Like both Hinterseer and Mayes, Evans stressed that, although Panos doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, and that even if they did it would necessarily have to be general rather than prescriptive, they are confronted with challenges and dilemmas daily. One example he gave was a request to use a photograph of a Hercules aircraft on an aid mission for a campaign declaring this was the main purpose of such aircraft. Knowing full well their large military role Panos declined to sell the image on the grounds the campaign would be misleading.

From my interviews with agency directors it is clear that the relationship between the individual and the agency is complex. We cannot assume one is synonymous with the other. These agencies represent only a portion of their members’ activities and work and do not have any control over work done outside the agencies ambit.

That makes the problem of negotiating ethical challenges even more difficult. None of the directors thought you could legislate for ethics, and I agree. For an agency to have prescriptive list of provisions about what you can and can’t do would be both prohibitively long and yet would ultimately fail to cover all the bases.

This issue is only going to become more important for photojournalism. As Adrian Evans argued, with the decline in editorial news outlets everyone is looking for new revenue streams, and in that search work with the corporate sector is increasingly attractive and lucrative. At the same time, work for governments of all stripes and NGOs of all kinds pose similar questions. If you are offered an assignment by the Sunday Times magazine, how do you feel being paid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a corporation now infamous for illegal journalistic practices? And if  – as with this post – you produce things with Apple computers, what’s your stand on Chinese labour conditions and the mining of rare minerals in the Congo?

We are all implicated, especially in a global capitalist system where the structures of ownership and responsibility are increasingly hard to discern. To repeat Stephen Mayes observation, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment.” There are no pure moral grounds from which any of us can freely cast stones. At the same time, being unavoidably implicated does not mean we shrug our shoulders and give up on the need to make the difficult judgements about what should be done.

We cannot, and probably should not, draw up a twenty first century version of the Ten Commandments for the ethical practice of documentary photography and photojournalism. But, as Adrian Evans said, now is perhaps the time for photographers and others to start an active discussion on general principles that can underwrite the critical ethos photojournalism so often claims.

If I were an agency director, I would probably look at the NOOR model as the best way forward into that discussion. If I was a photojournalist, and wanted to manage possible tensions between my commercial and editorial work, I would consider the guidelines for ethical investment where certain industry sectors (e.g. defence, tobacco, nuclear power) are excluded as places to put your money. Translating those into limits for the sale and use of images could be a first step towards greater moral consistency.

Documentary and editorial agencies will never control nor police all of their members’ activities, and nor should they given they don’t represent all of their members practice. While we can appreciate the relationship between the collective and the individual is a complex one, it surely needs a clearer ethical grounding.

However, in the end it will be the critical and ongoing discussion about what work we should do, whom we should do it for, and how we should represent people and issues, that will be the ultimate manifestation of an ethical approach. And that is a discussion that cannot be limited to the formal institutions of photojournalism.

POSTSCRIPT

Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography at Associated Press, emailed today with a substantive comment on AP policy. Posted with his permission, here are his thoughts:

David,

I just read your recent  posting on the moral dilemmas facing photo agencies [above] and would like to thank you for taking an even-handed and thoughtful approach to what is clearly a complicated issue.

While your piece focused on photographer-owned or cooperative agencies, I thought it worth noting that at The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest – if not the largest – photo agencies, we have a  well-defined code of ethics, viewable here – http://www.ap.org/company/news-values

In addition, staff photographers are expressly prohibited from undertaking nonjournalistic assignments for the AP, thus avoiding the sort of specific ethical challenges that prompted the initial debate (that said, as your piece notes, we live in a complicated world of ethical and moral dilemmas and review issues constantly on a case-by-case basis).

AP freelance photographers, as independent contractors, are free to undertake whatever non-AP work they deem fit, although we would take a dim view on a case-by-case basis if this extended to openly controversial work for organizations with deliberately violent or provocative agendas.

As the leader of the AP’s global photo department (and a former photographer), I am always interested in exploring and educating myself and others about these issues.

Bests

Santiago

 

Photo: theilr/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The photo is accompanied by this epigram: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line some place. — Oscar Wilde.”

9 Responses to “Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective”

  1. Hi David,

    Thanks for the post – very interesting. At PhotoVoice a couple of years ago we produced something we called a ‘Statement of Ethical Practice’ – sounds rather pompous with hindsight but title aside it was very much our attempt to create a (general not prescriptive) document that we could put out there to openly discussed the idea of ethics in relation to our participatory photography projects – work that is fraught with its own ethical tensions and contradictions but discussions around which are limited and are very much glossed over in project rhetoric.

    The process of producing and writing it was a valuable one for the organisation in terms of the conversations we had and also in terms of putting notions of ethical and responsible practice higher on our radars. It is a far from perfect document but it forced us to pin down our ideas around ethical standards instead of talking in vague terms as we always had done about the importance of ethics. Even just the process of defining the specific tensions and contradictions that our projects entail gave us the opportunity for a healthy dose of self-reflection. It made us come down from the moral high ground that Adrian refers to and have a reality check about what motivates and shapes the work that we do.

    Here is a link to the document for those interested:
    http://www.photovoice.org/whatwedo/info/photovoices-statement-of-ethical-practice

    Tiffany

  2. Dear David,

    thanks for your post. I think is one of the rare case in which we can reflect on photojournalism ethic through contribution from VII, Noor and Panos. I’m interested especially on the code of ethic(or of conduct). I totally understand that some agencies decide to have, or not, a code of ethic. Sometimes even with a strong political approach. But, for example in the case of Noor, when they say “Any violation are given a warning”…what does it mean? Is there someone that write to Noor saying ..sorry, one of your photographer is not ethic in his/her approach(or something like that)?Any professional photographer has his/her own integrity and for sure most of them try to be coherent with themselves and with their own code of ethic, which could be similar to the ones described in the post. But, How agencies can really understand the daily approach on the field and then see that maybe that kind of approach is not corresponding to the agency ethic policy?
    Thanks and enjoy your week ahead..
    L

  3. No doubt a useful discussion for practitioners you’ve chimed in on. I have two comments in response to your closing statement:

    “If I were an agency director, I would probably look at the NOOR model as the best way forward into that discussion. If I was a photojournalist, and wanted to manage possible tensions between my commercial and editorial work, I would consider the guidelines for ethical investment where certain industry sectors (e.g. defence, tobacco, nuclear power) are excluded as places to put your money. Translating those into limits for the sale and use of images could be a first step towards greater moral consistency.”

    This seemed to imply that Ethical Investment practices, policies and procedures are themselves offer a rigorousness and rigidity, and even more so, can move the situation described towards some sort of “moral consistency”. My reading of your post brought to mind two things:

    First, the implementation of Ethical Investment invariably stalls when done collectively because of the simple fact that: what is unethical to me may not be unethical to you. Individual implementation – and not agency wide – would therefore be the only foreseeable model without imposing ethical positions on a very broad range of sectors sufficient to cover all areas identified by agency participants, or conversely, to satisfy individual photographers seeking to join an ‘ethical agency’.

    Second, taking the ‘arms industry’ as the example given its ready applicability to the discussion at hand, it is fraught with opaqueness and issues relating to dual-use components and product lines. For example, are Boeing likely to be excluded given their involvement with the nuclear industry and vast selection of military aircraft? What of the banks who finance an arms maker?

    Useful suggestion, but itself fraught with implementation issues.

    Go well,
    NAJ Taylor

    • I think you’re over-reading the recommendations. They’re about first steps, and its clear from the post that unequivocal guidelines are impossible. In most cases, such as Noor, they are about putting the issue on the agenda and having a basis for a continuing negotiations, including managing the tension between individual and collective. But the example of Boeing as a dual-use manufacturer (or Airbus etc) shows how difficult this whole area is and why moral legislation is likely to be unsuccessful.

      • Yeah sure, they’re first steps. I’m merely problematising those first steps in a program designed to, as I said, “move the situation described towards some sort of ‘moral consistency'”.

        There’s very little scholarship on the issue of limit of corporate responsibility of arms makers, partly because of the paradoxical nature of such an enterprise, and partly because of vast implementation issues pertaining to transparency, knowledge, and dual-use.

        I’ve written a little on this – in relation to divestment strategies – if you or your readers look to operationalise this.

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