Categories
media economy photography politics

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 I also approached the director of advertising at Magnum, but unfortunately their web site contained out of date information, and the person named was  no longer able to speak for them.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.”

Categories
photography politics

The importance of criticism

It has been quiet in these parts while I’ve been teaching in the US, but now that I’m back in the UK and in freelance mode, I’m looking forward to again writing here more regularly, trying to articulate the contexts of photography, multimedia and politics.

Having been preoccupied with off-line responsibilities I’ve also had a chance to reflect on the important things that need to be said and done – and its quite a long list! As an opening thought, I wanted to restate why I believe criticism, like the writing here, is important.

I was prompted on this by Jim Johnson’s post (brought to my attention by @MartijnKleppe) on keeping a photography blog and the place of criticism. In turn, Jim was inspired by a great piece from David Levi Strauss on the value of criticism in the context of art. Levi Strauss concluded:

Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism. Absolutely, and as Jim Johnson said, replace ‘art’ in that sentence with ‘photography’ and ‘photojournalism’, and you have something important to grasp.

Of course, one of the issues central to criticism has to be how we make and understand the connection to the real, to the social. Which is why theory is inescapable for creative practice that wants to engage.

Thinking about what makes for good criticism – and there is plenty of bad, knee-jerk, thoughtless criticism – I’m always drawn back to Michel Foucault’s ethos of practicing criticism:

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest…Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.

Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult. That’s what I attempt here. And, as outlined in relation to on-going issues like the representation of famine, it has very practical consequences. Because one of the facile gestures we have to make difficult is the idea that ‘theory’ is distinct from, and even opposed to, ‘practice’. Let’s see where that thought takes us.

Categories
photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.

 

Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?

Reference:

Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.