How much do images influence us? – A question of ethics

… or the eternal question of what is right and wrong?

Through a Facebook post of the Leibnitz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, I again became aware of an exciting topic that has occupied me even before I found my way into photography. 
It is about the ethics of images, or rather photos in photojournalism. The scope of this topic is huge, so in the following I would like to share only my basic thoughts about it with you.

Images have power. They can trigger wars and political catastrophes, divide societies and distort events. On the other hand, images entertain us daily, transport information and preserve moments. At the latest since almost everyone owns a smartphone, the mass of images and their individual significance in our daily lives has never been greater. Among other things, this has led to a battle over the interpretive sovereignty of images in public debates and in the media houses for quite some time.

At the same time, I keep asking myself what it’s like when people are suffering from conflicts right before your eyes and it’s your job to portray what’s happening authentically and honestly, while all sorts of things are going on around you? How do I manage to keep my images from being distorted afterwards? How do I manage to photograph the moment with dignity and possibly document contemporary history without crossing a certain line? Where does that line lie? Is it okay for me to be here at all? Am I an voyeur?

There is often the accusation of an aestheticization of misery or an exaggeration of violence to the point of shock photography. This is due in part to photographers such as Todd Maisel, who showed a photo of a torn-off hand after the September 11 attacks in close-up and color to appropriately confront the horror in his own way. Often, images are distorted in their context in order to achieve the greatest possible attention and associated click numbers. The line to pure voyeurism is therefore fluid and has always been part of conducted debates.

An ethic in photography is very important to set a limit and to preserve the dignity of the victims. Unfortunately, there is still no clear basis for this today. The range of topics in image ethics is large and includes topics such as violence, images of women, discrimination, emotionalization, aestheticization, falsification of context, falsification of material or retouching. In addition, a photograph is usually subjective, as the creator directs his or her personal view of an event. This creates the additional danger that minorities are not adequately or inaccurately portrayed from a privileged perspective. For this reason, it is also interesting to know which photographer is behind a photo and how his or her moral compass is aligned, because behind every photo, in turn, there is a story.

The story of Bissan Maroun – lowering the bar of journalism

The story of Bissan Maroun from Beirut shows how important this can be. A single photo sparked a major controversy and turned her life completely upside down. In 2007, photographer Spencer Platt’s photo won the World Press Photo Award. It went through all the media around the world like wildfire. Newspapers interpreted the facts of the case from their own perspective and made their judgment in the captions. They said that the pictures showed rich young Lebanese people engaged in war tourism. Others complained about the women’s skimpy outfits or found the car a pure provocation. Even before the real story broke, there was much gloating, criticism and uproar among war photographers.

It was August 15, the day after the official ceasefire. For 33 days, Hezbollah and the Israeli army fought each other. In the process, the Israeli army launched airstrikes throughout Lebanon, while Hezbollah fired rockets at targets in northern Israel. During the Israeli airstrikes, Bissan, her brother Jad and sister Tamara fled their neighborhood of Sfeir. They found shelter in a hotel in Hamra, a neighborhood of Beirut, where they also met the two other women shown in the photo. Both were employees at the hotel and were able to take shelter in one of the rooms when the war broke out.

Whether Bissan and her siblings would ever be able to return home was uncertain. They didn’t even know if their apartment block was still standing. When the ceasefire was finally announced, Jad was able to borrow an acquaintance’s Mini Cooper to go together to see what was left of their old life. They squeezed all together into the car and opened the top, because it was very hot that day, and drove off. The rest is history.

Out of the corner of his eye, photographer Spencer Platt saw the car, raised his camera and shot with his camera several times. The media quickly constructed its own reality around this picture and in the end the photographer was sorry to have caused such an unpleasant situation for those involved. In fact, besides a big gap between rich and poor, there is also such tourism in Lebanon, only Bissan and the others were not part of it. They themselves came from the dahiye, or suburbs. It was only after an interview with Bissan and publication of the true story that the dust settled.

Is that the general consent? – Without me!

On the one hand, it is always a matter of weighing whether an event is documented on the basis of contemporary historical relevance and contributes to the subsequent establishment of the truth, or whether it is mere showmanship. On the other hand, publication is of great relevance. It makes a difference whether a large publishing house or various media houses publish and report on a picture, or whether the photographer publishes his documentation himself. The example of Bissan Maroun shows very well what a difficult situation the media companies are in, not only in this country. It is generally worthwhile to take a look at how a story has been prepared and whether the reporting is tendentious.

In the past, there have also been repeated images in various media that have been manipulated with image editing programs and distorted in their message. One example of this is the Middle East peace talks at the White House in 2010. We see the influence that images and texts can have, for example, in social networks when election campaigns are being conducted or when conflicts are being reported. Through the manipulation of images and deliberately false or lurid reporting, journalists are increasingly falling into disrepute. At the same time, hostility has risen sharply and attacks, hostage-takings and killings of journalists have increased since 2002, according to statistics.

In times of fake news, the aspect of image & media ethics is to be seen as a last bastion for journalism. Not least due to self-proclaimed reporters with their smartphones. The public reputation of the media is wanes more and more, while at the same time doubts about the truthfulness of reporting are becoming louder and louder. The various media companies are themselves diligently contributing to this, riding the wave of outrage and in turn generating attention for themselves. Behaviors that we have been used to from BILD for decades can now also be found at a majority of other publishers. Tear-jerking headlines with clickbait character and articles that focus on attention instead of content are now part of daily business.

It is more important than ever to provide authentic and honest reporting in order to counter the false reports and false allegations. The medium of images and now also the medium of video are taking on an ever greater role in opinion-forming, while in social networks, in turn, false reports and so-called filter bubbles are constructing their own reality. In view of all these dynamics, it is essential to restore trust in journalism and to show that good and authentic reporting can also be found!

If we become aware of the current situation, it quickly becomes clear that the questions posed at the beginning are very difficult to answer. In order to complete the picture and perhaps find answers, it is therefore important to also take a look at the other side of the pictures, namely photojournalism. However, because this is beyond the scope of one post, I’ll address the topic in a separate blog entry soon.

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