What Keeps You Honest?

This ethics column ran in the News Photographer Magazine dedicated to the issues surrounding freelancing.

By John Long, Ethics Chairman, NPPA

We have become more and more a profession of freelancers.

Much of this issue of News Photographer is dedicated to the topic of freelance photojournalism so the question was posed – are there ethical issues primarily associated with freelancing? The answer is yes.

For freelancers, the basic question is, “What keeps you honest?”

For photojournalism itself, the question is, “Are style and substance the same?”

One of the great advantages of working at a newspaper for 35 years was that I always had a group with whom I could talk. I was always learning from my coworkers. We each had our strengths and specialties and we shared information. I am not a technical person so I relied on other photographers to show me how Photoshop worked or how to archive photographs, and a myriad of other details.

We also kept each other honest. When you work in a small, open photography lab, you cannot get away with much. Peer pressure sometimes is a valuable asset for a staff. One of the reasons Allan Detrich was able to create all the altered and manipulated photographs that finally brought him down at the Toledo Blade was the fact that he did most of his image processing in private.

If you are a staff of one (a freelancer) you have no one looking over your shoulder. Freelancers have to rely on their own personal sense of ethics and integrity since they do not have the peer pressure of coworkers.

If you look at some of the great falls from grace over the past years, you can see how many of the major ethical blowups came from photographers who were working in isolation, or freelancing, or both. Adnan Hajj caused Reuters great problems when he doctored images as a freelancer in Lebanon. Brian Walski was on his own in Iraq when he transmitted the doctored photograph that got him fired from the Los Angeles Times. The temptations that come with the ease and seamlessness of Photoshop can be very alluring, especially when no one is looking.

One of the major reasons that NPPA has become even more important today is that as we have become more and more a profession of freelancers, NPPA has become a home, a safe place for camaraderie, a community for learning, sharing, and building a sense of integrity. I have said that while I learned to be a photographer from my uncle (who was a good amateur photographer), I learned to be a newspaper photographer from the guys I worked with in the 1970s and I learned to be a photojournalist from NPPA. Photographers have always needed a sense of belonging. Why do you think Magnum Photos and, more recently, VII Photo Agency were started? There is safety in numbers and a commonality of purpose.

Freelancers also live in a world of mixed messages. One day you may be hired by the AP to cover a news event, and the next you are shooting a wedding. The ethics are different because your master is different. While you’re shooting a wedding, your ultimate loyalty may be to the mother of the bride, but when you are working for a news agency your ultimate loyalty is to accuracy. Moving from one role to the next, the confusion for the photographer can be disconcerting. Ethics Committee member Steve Raymer asked, “Can you do both jobs and stay sane and look yourself in the mirror, if knowing that one of the biggest trends in public relations and advertising is to make images that look like photojournalism?” Style is substance. Marshall McLuhan was right – the medium is the message.

The hottest thing in wedding photography today is the “photojournalism style” coverage. There is even an association for wedding photographers who work in a photojournalistic style (WPJA, which does stress high ethical standards). It looks like photojournalism, but the ultimate purpose is not to cover the event objectively – the goal is to cover the event in a way that makes the bride look good. It is photojournalism as style, not content. Ethics take a back seat to the wishes of the client. It’s the use of the techniques of photojournalism to give an air of believability to a set of wedding photographs, or a corporate report.

 But there are no ethics in a world where style is the content.

And yet, there is an even greater pressure on freelancers than a matter of style – and that is simply making a living. Many, many freelancers are just barely getting by. There just isn’t the quantity of work out there that there used to be, and the numbers of photographers bidding for the smaller amount of work is growing as newspaper and magazine staffs shrink. At the same time, schools continue to graduate more and more qualified shooters into the employment pool. In this environment, it can be tempting to try to give oneself an edge by doctoring a photograph, even if just a little. The temptation is great. And if my “Philistine” art director wants me to doctor a photograph, how can I say no when it means I might never work for him or her again? Editors want it “now,” and quality be damned. In this environment, a little thing such as a sense of right and wrong is meaningless.

 There are a handful of freelancers at the top of the game who, through reputation and long careers working for the best magazines while making large paychecks, can resist this kind of pressure. But if you have a mortgage and a bunch of kids to feed, ethics are sometimes a luxury. Desperation is hard to argue with.