So much has been written about “a moment of reckoning” within the visual journalism industry. We have been confronted with several accounts of harassment and assault that are so disturbing that “disturbing” doesn’t begin to describe them. The alleged perpetrators and their victims are at all levels of our profession. Reckoning – the avenging or punishing of past misdeeds and mistakes – is more than appropriate for those who have harmed others and disgraced our field by abusing their power, positions or prestige, all to prey on those less advantaged.
The vast majority of these incidents have surfaced thanks to victims who came forward and spoke truth to power, sacrificing their privacy and risking their reputations to do so. As a community, we need to accept that the responsibility to shed light on these abuses – taking care to respect the confidentiality and privacy of victims – ultimately falls on all of us.
Less overt, but also detrimental, are the ways in which highly qualified women and people of color have been passed over for assignments, jobs, advancement, speaking engagements and other professional and educational opportunities. A systemic change of hearts and minds is necessary to reshape this dynamic for the better, and we all must play a role in mentoring, seeking, identifying and empowering others.
The sins of indifference and justification are something we all need to confront. No more looking the other way. No more saying that the artistry or good works of an individual outweigh deplorable or unbefitting conduct.
This is an age-old question of morality, aptly summed up in a 2012 New York Times op-ed headlined “Good Art, Bad People” by Charles McGrath. When, if ever, does the artist’s genius or the person’s good works excuse their faults or flaws? Can the art be separated from the human being who created it? Should it be? There are innumerable works of captivating art created by human beings who were deeply flawed, troubled, unsavory or worse. We know that the eccentricities of artists and creative people are boundless. But harassment, assault, rape – these are clearly not eccentricities. They’re abhorrent criminal conduct.
And visual journalism isn't just art. In a profession such as ours where we must consistently encounter and work with others to create a record of history and to shed light on injustice and abuses of power, abuse among our colleagues cannot stand. Our work is not some internal artistic struggle done in isolation. It is cooperative and collaborative, an exploration and communication of events, emotions and truths. We give voice to the voiceless. It is simply malpractice for our mission to be executed by individuals intent on taking advantage of others or intent on keeping them down. If an individual treats colleagues with abuse or neglect in a professional context, how will he or she treat strangers when telling their stories?
NPPA’s Code of Ethics addresses this plainly and directly: “Do not engage in harassing behavior of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behavior in all professional interactions. … Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. … Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.”
For so long, many of us have had the luxury of considering “sabotage” to mean someone physically interfering with our ability to make an image, obstructing our lens’ view or compromising our equipment – a fleeting nuisance. Sadly, many have known a much deeper and long-lasting sabotage: abuse and harassment that can stall, divert or destroy a career or life.
I would trade an infinite number of photojournalistic “geniuses” and prizewinning images for an industry in which all were unconditionally treated with dignity and respect, and provided the opportunities fitting their professional talents and effort. It is time – truly long overdue – to stop ignoring, standing by or actively defending the bad actors in our profession who abuse or hold back others from success. We talk about our work speaking truth to power in the world, but it's time to speak truth to power within our own ranks.
Op-ed writer McGrath writes: “the cruel thing about art – of great art, anyway – is that it requires its practitioners to be wrapped up in themselves in a way that’s a little inhuman.” But visual journalism requires its practitioners to care for others in a way that’s a little superhuman. We need to admire our colleagues for their compassion and conduct far more than for their creation.
It’s not enough to merely say all of this. That won’t make the change happen. Your ideas and your vision are necessary to transform our industry for the better. Think about what NPPA can do to elevate goodness, provide opportunities and empower whistleblowers. Tell me, and we’ll work together to achieve our goal.
To reach Michael P. King, email [email protected]