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The Ethics of Political Photography

Stanford lecturer discusses ethical issues raised by iconic political photos

Iconic photographs depicting the Vietnam War, famines and refugees in Africa, and the horrors of 9/11 are seared into our consciousness. At Stanford’s Ethics @ Noon session on Friday Stanford lecturer Paul Bator raised provocative questions about documentary photojournalism.

His first question was “Why do iconic photos have an impact?” He referred to Judith Butler who dealt with political framing of photographs in her book, “Frames of War”. She wrote, ‘… it is not just that the photographer and/or the viewer actively and deliberately interpret, but that the photograph itself becomes a structuring scene of interpretation – and one that may unsettle both maker and viewer in its turn.”

Susan Sontag questioned whether people would take action after seeing photographs. Bator quoted her: “The exhibition in photography of cruelties inflicted on those of darker complexions in exotic countries continues… oblivious to the considerations that deter such displays of our own victims of violence…”

Bator showed the famous photo often called “Napalm Girl” that shows a naked screaming nine-year-old and her brother and other civilians fleeing a village that had been accidentally bombed with napalm in 1972. In the photo by Nick Ut, South Vietnamese soldiers are ignoring the children and just dealing with their weapons. The photo became a classic representation of a victimized people. However, photo editors delayed its publication for 24 hours while they debated the propriety of showing a naked girl.

Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1993 photo of a vulture on the ground a few yards from a dying child in famine-stricken Sudan. Bator said that Carter benefited monetarily from the sale of his photo to the New York Times but he admitted that that he waited 20 minutes to see if the vulture would flare its wings. He finally took a picture and then chased off the vulture. However, he came under criticism for failing to help the girl. Carter committed suicide a year later.

Another view of suffering in Africa came from photojournalist and author Alixandra Fazzina. Her photo shows the desperation of Somali refugees who paid a million Somali shillings (50 US dollars) each to board an overcrowded boat bound for Yemen. The boat sank and few survived. In her book, “A Million Shillings” Fazzina wrote, “I hope my photography gives someone else a moment to stand still, take the time to look, look properly, and engage in a slightly different way with the world.”

Bator was asked about the use of Photoshop. He replied that it “raises questions of authenticity as well as the quality of the photo,” He recalled how during Stalin’s era manipulation was a common practice as photo editors used scissors to excise enemies of the state from the pages of history.

An example of “photoshopping” before Photoshop cited by Bator was the 1968 Saigon execution photo by Eddie Adams. In this famous photo South Vietnamese Army General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan is shown shooting a Viet Cong officer with his pistol on a street in Saigon. According to Bator, Adams rues the photo that destroyed General Loan’s reputation.

Bator concluded his lecture saying, “There is much inspiring work done by political photographers.”

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