A discussion of ethics in photojournalism and editorial portraiture.
This morning, I photographed a teacher who had recently won a national mentorship award. Due to time constraints, I had to perform my duties during the interview, which was held in the school cafeteria. There, I set up my lighting kit, a Speedlite attached to a lightstand with an umbrella. In addition to standard headshots (safety shots), I wanted to make effective use of the surroundings. I noticed a round table behind her that I could use, if only I had some students.
With the assistance of her colleagues, we located some willing students in the school library. I placed them in the background, giving them some "props" to use, such as books, papers, and a laptop. Someone suggested handing the teacher a mug to hold during the shoot. I didn't object to the mug, thinking that was a good idea. To the right is one photo that I took using this setup. I took a number of photos like this, as well as some normal headshots (see photo below).
Back at the office, the two photographers to whom I showed the photos were noticeably concerned about photo #1. Their argument was that it was too set up to be an interview portrait. They felt uncomfortable running with that photo in the paper, as it was manufactured and not based on reality. An interview portrait, they felt, should not be set up in any way. The photo that we eventually selected for the article, shown below, does not contain any extraneous background elements.
Though I was taking my photographs during an interview, I wanted to create an environmental portrait of the teacher with what I had available to me at the time. This is why I added the students in the background and the coffee mug. Is this the reason why the other photographers raised the red flag? How much can you control during an interview portrait and how much can you not? Would moving the interviewer and interviewee into a better lighting situation constitute photographic tampering? Would using an umbrella, soft box, or flash constitute be considered unethical?
If I had arranged to meet with the teacher at a later point, would it have been okay to have staged the photo to my liking? Would the photograph then be transformed into an environmental portrait by virtue of it not happening during the interview process? Is it allowable in an environmental portrait to add other people into the photograph? Where do we draw the line? What about photo documentaries such as Salgado's Migrations project? Was anything there "staged" or was he exclusively the silent observer in his photographs?
Since we are in a gray area of photography, I am curious to know how you all feel about this subject. Please use the comments section below to enter your thoughts. Thank you!
Tags: Photography Culture