June 7, 2021 - The Photo Bill of Rights — more specifically, NPPA’s support of it — was such a flashpoint almost a year ago. Sometimes I can’t believe people are still fighting over it. But of course we are. Our visual journalism community has an uncanny knack for simultaneously angering its veterans and eating its young. If you had told me a year ago that I would come out of my (blissful) NPPA past-presidency to wade back into this dispute, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, here I am, generally disappointed by the discourse so far, compelled to stick up for something I’ve come to believe is mostly right.
It’s a real shame that some aspects of the PBoR created such a distraction from the important core ideals that it primarily stands for: health and safety protections, financial respect and security, condemning and addressing abusive conduct, and striving for parity and inclusion. All of that — amidst the backdrop of a pandemic and unrest — was particularly of benefit to independent and freelance photographers who find themselves (either by choice or force) a critical mass of the working visual journalists today.
Some word choices and topics included in the PBoR made some of my colleagues and friends upset, uncomfortable, confused… or even offended. At times I, too, was a little uncomfortable with what I was reading.
But “good,” I say.
The Photo Bill of Rights, just like anything touching on the topic of race, equity, inclusion and ethics, does not exist to make us feel comfortable. The PBoR is meant to provoke in us a deeper consideration of our profession and our purpose, but from the perspectives of people who have enjoyed less privilege, less power, and have potentially far more to lose from appearing in the visual media that we create.
The terms “white supremacy” and “white, Western cisgender male gaze” rubbed many the wrong way. Their use also gave me pause. But it’s been a year, and I’ve absorbed lots of information and context that’s helped me push past the boundaries of my prior education. I now have a better understanding of how the photographic medium and its aesthetics were profoundly shaped by its early white male practitioners, and sometimes used to subjugate and harm others. I now have a better understanding of how “white supremacy” is not necessarily an accusation of having an affiliation with racist groups, but an indictment of the many socio-economic systems in America imbued with explicit and implicit biases that advantage white people.
Want to take issue with the term “lens-based workers?” Go right ahead! It’s certainly not my cup of tea, and not what I would ever call myself. But it’s not a hill I’ll die upon. There has always been some amount of disagreement over what we call ourselves: photographer, photojournalist, visual journalists, even “shooter” (which, thankfully, is losing favor in light of its predatory connotations, and pervasive gun violence in our culture). The PBoR was obviously intended to include more than our traditional photojournalism community, and fussing over this is somewhat frivolous.
Let’s focus on the main complaint: Consent.
Despite “informed consent” being part of a supplementary toolkit and not in the PBoR text; despite the disclaimer “if and when applicable” ; despite the fact that it is merely suggested dialogue; this remains a major sticking point with so many.
In some circles, the PBoR has become the butt of crass jokes after any documented assault or harassment of a photographer. “I guess they didn’t ask for consent” someone will inevitably quip. Although such clashes may happen with more frequency today, these sorts of incidents have been happening for years, and I have yet to see any convincing evidence that the PBoR was the fuel on those fires. Implying that there is a connection does not make it so.
I’ve heard the arguments that prior consent is simply impractical in the real world, that it surrenders our sacred First Amendment rights as photojournalists. I’ve even heard people suggest that the concept of consent is incongruous with NPPA’s values. People on both sides of this divide have talked about photojournalism as if it is only practiced at protests, “spot news” scenes, and amidst other calamity. Such narrow, absolutist perspectives ignore how much more there is to photojournalism than documenting chaos, how highly contextual “consent” must be, how every situation can and must be handled on a case by case basis, and that we ultimately have to use our best judgment, instincts and moral compass.
Ethics don’t instruct machines. They guide human beings. We have to trust that a photographer will reach into their ethical “toolbox,” filled with a number of options we’ve educated them on, and pull out the right one in any given situation.
There will be times when consent cannot — or should not — be obtained, before or after the fact. There will be times when gaining consent in the form of identifying oneself, getting names, and gathering information, quotes, and context (a.k.a. being a journalist) is appropriate and adequate. There will be times when prior informed consent is ethically necessary or journalistically advantageous, fully recognizing the person being documented as a willing collaborator in the storytelling process. (After all, it is their story that we are privileged to tell.)
There will be times when standing our ground and asserting our First Amendment rights — in the face of government agents and others seeking to silence us — will be necessary. And there will be times when we are entitled to photograph or record, but perhaps ethically or strategically we should not.
We should not conflate our legal entitlements with our ethical responsibilities — the two necessarily coexist. Why do we have to choose to be “anti-consent” or “pro-consent”? Why can’t we accept that in the real world there’s a continuum of consent that is highly situational in its application?
What some PBoR opponents likely struggle with is the idea of granting any agency to the people we have traditionally called “subjects.” Essentially: If it’s in the public view then it happened, and it’s mine for the taking — others’ feelings about it be damned. They cling to the concept that “subjects” surrender their rights of privacy at their doorsteps. And while in the legal sense that is very much true, it is obvious we must temper that attitude with our ethics. In fact, NPPA’s Code of Ethics has never suggested that the First Amendment entitles us to do whatever we wish with our cameras. Intentionality, thought, and concern for others’ wellbeing are critical components to include in our ethical equations.
Why? Despite telling ourselves for decades that what we do is good for the world, what we do also has the potential to harm people and alter the course of their lives.
Since leaving newspapers for higher education a few years ago, I increasingly find myself reflecting on my years as a staff photojournalist. Like all of my colleagues, I thought of myself as dedicated to faithfully reporting the news for the sake of a more informed and enlightened community, nation and world. No platitudes — we truly had that in our hearts. But in hindsight, I now recognize how segregated my coverage was and how completely typical that pattern was to American newsmedia: White people more frequently portrayed in business, science, education, politics and other positions of power or success; People of color more frequently portrayed in the context of athletics, struggle, poverty, protest, pain, and interactions with the criminal justice system.
Less frequently were there stories of people of color who were contributing wonderful things, large and small, to their communities, or stories of love and success. And I don’t recall many times when we were actively encouraged or coached to shift our focus and resources to be more inclusive in telling the whole story of our community. That perspective only seemed to come from the more enlightened voices within our profession. We could have done better. I’ve come to understand that I became an unwitting accomplice to an American journalism complex that, by and large, tends to depict and tell stories of people of color in negative or superficial lights.
I’ve recently learned of the work that Khary Mason does as the co-founder of the non-profit Capturing Belief in Detroit, where he helps empower young people of color by teaching writing and photography skills. He has said that his goal for them is “to be able to tell the world who they are, instead of having someone from outside the culture tell the world who they are. Because they often get it wrong. And getting it wrong is extremely dangerous.”
What is dangerous, you ask? Our belief in what is possible in our lives is shaped by what we see. And who we learn to revere or fear is also shaped by what we see. Consider how these two truths might adversely impact people of color.
We must take great care to “get the story right” when we find ourselves telling cross-cultural stories. But more importantly, we must rapidly increase the opportunities for journalists of color to thrive in newsrooms and publications — for them to tell stories with authenticity that they see as important, and for them to hold leadership roles that will determine what stories are told, and how they are told.
Even though parts of the Photo Bill of Rights are not exactly how I would have written them, I refuse to let those parts spoil what is good. I found that once I surrendered my own preference for a communication style that appeases all audiences, I was a better listener to what someone else was trying to tell me, and I accepted that I have some things to learn. Many of the authoring groups and individuals come to this debate having been previously marginalized from such conversations and our profession. Will we continue to marginalize them, or will we open our minds, hearts, and doors?
I think the Photo Bill of Rights was meant to provoke us to think about our responsibilities as photojournalists more than our rights as photojournalists; to consider that while the images we make could change our communities or the world, the images we make could also have significant repercussions for the human beings depicted within them. This is about centering the people rather than our craft. We serve them — all of the public — not ourselves.
We must be strong and vulnerable enough to think highly of our profession while also admitting its failings — and our failings. Doing so does not surrender our rights, dilute our importance, diminish our authenticity or our power to influence the world. It does not make us a bad profession or bad people. It merely makes us human, willing to work for change, and equity, and justice in our industry and our world.
It is right and just for the NPPA to be supportive of, and involved with, this initiative — if not for the racial justice aspects, for the health and economic justice aspects. We were invited to have a seat at the table, and in accepting that invitation we can not only influence this conversation with our areas of expertise, but be guided in our own reckoning. Somewhat unexpectedly, it sparked mine.
Michael P. King is a former NPPA board member, secretary, vice president, president and past president spanning 2010-2021. After a decade-plus career in newspapers, he does science and agricultural journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the NPPA or his employer.