Don’t Take Pictures
An anti-photography sentiment is not a recent development in Seattle. It dates back at least twenty years and maybe longer. The anti-globalization movement articulated attacks on the mainstream media, which were in-turn manifested as violence against individuals. Photographs can be used to incriminate as easily as vindicate or tell a mainstream narrative instead of a more accurate version of the story. The press is usually part of a business model, albeit a questionable one. Critics of photography should be aware of nuance within this dialogue. The lack of trust in all cameras is misplaced. Photographs made with context, knowledge of the situation, and empathy are more likely to add value to a dialogue than distract from the critical issues.
The potential for doxing from a news photograph is a legitimate concern but is usurped when digital journalists that have access to arrest records post on social media and authority has access to ubiquitous surveillance technologies. These two factors are all the more reason that a trained eye making photographs can add value to delicate situations and dynamics. The onus is on the photographer, however, not the subject, to add this value through compelling, engaging, or thought-provoking images.
Photography can show abuses of power, which is why both protagonists and antagonists are skeptical of the presence of cameras. Abuse-of-power is different than incrimination. This is a not a "show-both-sides” argument, but rather a comment on why photographers should be encouraged to develop their own voice and editorialize, and let work. Photography has the potential to be commentary based on first-person accounts of moments in local, national, and international history. It also has the potential to inform, educate, and build knowledge. That said, like any form of power, it must be wielded with caution and humility.
It’s important for photographers to be self-aware about the potential to apply their own narrative to a story. It’s impossible not to bring some narrative, but it should respect the gestalt of the situation. That gestalt includes the philosophical perspective of the photographer and the reasons for "who, what, and where" the photographs depict.
Video is also more likely to incriminate via livestreams and high-frame rates while showing violence out of context. Small incidents tend to look more dramatic in hand-held video than a carefully composed photograph. Forensic photography is also different than photojournalism and should be recognized as such, but can be part of a photojournalist's repertoire. There is a role for video, as well, but experts in that field are better situated to comment.
Photography is also a legitimate concern when identifying marginalized and disenfranchised individuals who don’t have the power to amplify their own narrative. Understandably, it’s up to the photographer to gain the trust of people they photograph. This trust can not be assumed, implied, or taken for granted. Photography can give dignity to subjects as easily as damaging it, but not every frame should be posted or printed publicly. Photographers can try to only submit and post images that protect dignity and editors should help in furthering this mission. Lastly, refrain from photographing if it would cause additional trauma.
Photographers can maintain the rights to their images so they have some control over how the images are used. Photographer control is not a guaranteed method to ensure the subject’s security and dignity but is more possible than if the photo is part of a vast, publicly visible, and wholly-owned collection. Also, maintaining the rights gives photographers a chance to be a bridge between the subject and the media. Photographers who understand their work-arrangements can photograph accordingly if they are part of a staff. Ask permission, when at all possible.
Mis- and disinformation is an aspect of this dialogue because news photography is one measure to increase the accuracy of information about both fast-paced events and developing phenomena. For example, signage at a protest could be considered to walk a line between advocating for rights and spreading disinformation, depending on the message. Photographers should consider how they become a conduit of mis- and disinformation, particularly if their distribution channel doesn’t require compliance with journalistic codes.
As many photographers worked locally with their communities during the pandemic these dynamics become increasingly imperative, because we both live together and have a vested interest in health and well-being. Similar dynamics apply when traveling to photograph but present distinct challenges. These thoughts are meant to add to a conversation that should be more unifying than dividing.