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The Definition of Photojournalism: Looking at Ethics in Photojournalism

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/28/2010

Here is a look at what defines photojournalism and the ethics that are associated with this type of photography.

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    What is the Definition of Photojournalism?

    Photography is very vaguely defined as the capture of images using a camera, but the construction of the image in front of that camera and the manipulation of that image with photo editing software are both very standard ways of achieving the image you want. There are no practical reasons to avoid this in fields like fine art or advertising photography as the right image is the goal, and the process and characterization of that image are not under trial. This ethical stand-point is not extended all the way to the field of photojournalism, which brings in the standards of journalism into the field of photography. The definition of photojournalism can be debated and can become hazy in different forms that claim the name, but in the more standard definition of photojournalism there are ethical concerns that prohibit altering the image in certain ways.

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    Photojournalism and Ethics

    The ethics in photojournalism really surrounds the general function and definition of photojournalism: which is to capture the real world as it is happening. Though the concept of the real world can be debated, it is up to the photojournalist to capture the image as clearly and honestly as they see it. What this means in a specific sense of ethics in photojournalism is to avoid altering the photo as much as possible.

    This form of abstinence starts by non-participation in the image where the photojournalist avoids inspiring or activating the image as much as possible. Though the very presence of the photojournalist will likely change the situation, like draw the attention of the subjects, they should not be actively posing them in any way. Likewise, they should not be an actor in the given situation that they are photographing. For example, if there is a conflict between military forces and protesters and the photographer comes in and aids a protester while taking photos then this could break the code of ethics in photojournalism. This can create a paradox for many photojournalists as they are ethically bound from interfering in a situation, but a more broad sense of ethics may call them to act. If you are photographing a person who is dying of hunger and you give them food it could violate the ethics of your photo, but is humane.

    Beyond the active construction in the creation of the image in front of the camera, photo editing in programs like Adobe Photoshop are almost roundly rejected by ethics in photojournalism. This issue can be debated, but standard photo post-production elements such as smoothing out wrinkles on a person's face, enhancing the colors of a location, or changing the contrast could all be considered clear violations of ethics in photojournalism. There have been many major cases in recent years of photojournalists being let go from major publications for the most minor alterations during photo editing. An example of this could be a color alteration to a photo where the sky color could be changed. This change in sky color could indicate or diminish the appearance of pollution, it could change the interpretation of the season, and it could even shift the perspective of the subjects. All of these changes would be the anti-thesis of the structure of the photojournalist project and would violate it on a critical level. Photo editing can be used in certain situations, but it should remain incredibly minor if it wants to fit the strict ethical standards that have been associated with photojournalism. These restrictions will usually never apply to the negotiation of the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.

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    Structure

    Along with this basic appropriation of ethics comes a structure that is part of the definition of photojournalism. The photos themselves should be captured and distributed in a relatively timely fashion, otherwise their historical context could lead them to fine art categories. Journalism itself is meant to report on current events so that the public has a collective sense of a current narrative, and therefore the photos should be distributed quickly so as to serve this purpose. There is often a narrative structure to the photos, whether or not this appears in a single photo or a series of them. You may want to look towards framing photos that really tell a story or highlight a specific issue so they serve a real purpose.

Photojournalism 101

Whether you are simply looking for the definition of photojournalism, are considering a career in this field, or want to learn tips and techniques on mastering this type of photography, here are several articles that will help you learn what photojournalism is all about.
  1. The Definition of Photojournalism: Looking at Ethics in Photojournalism
  2. Basic Principles of Photojournalism
  3. Photojournalism Careers: Looking at Photojournalism Degree Requirements
  4. Photojournalism Photography: Capturing Events (Pre-Shooting)
  5. Preparing for Your First Shoot as a Photojournalist