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A breakdown of ethics in the fine art of photojournalism; time to see reality

It’s been a tough week for photojournalism with rising star Souvid Datta on the ropes and the industry left reeling from what the British Journal of Photography described as the ‘scandal of the season.’

PetaPixel broke the original story on 03 May, alleging Datta had Photoshopped a character from a Mary Ellen Mark picture into his own work. Social media quickly melted into a frenzy and it wasn’t long before more allegations of plagiarism began to surface, including criticism of the industry. He has since admitted plagiarising the work of other photographers including Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani.

Tweet that reads, this is an issue of photography but also mores an issue of basic human decency and the rights of children and rape victims.

Tweet that reads, aesthetics in photojournalism rule over the human sensibilities of ethics, dignity, morality and law today. Souvid Datta illustrated this. Tweet that reads, the thing is, for some years now, photojournalism has become a discipline about the photographer, instead of about the subject.

But this isn’t a simple story of ‘foolish’ photoshopping as Time magazine would have you believe. Duckrabbit published another story raising a far more serious question about the ethics of his work and importantly, the use by LensCulture of a picture of a child being raped to promote a photography competition run by Magnum photos.

The issue of ethics is not only central to the Datta story, it is the very cornerstone of photojournalism or at least it should be. Get that right and you’re less likely to transgress in other areas such as plagiarism which begs the question exactly what sort of training was Datta receiving? Did his mentors not impress ethics upon him? To me, that would be the obvious place to start for anyone entering the profession.

For an industry that deals with every aspect of human life, photojournalism appears to be worryingly lacking in both ethics and compassion. Practitioners will inspire you with powerful words claiming to bear witness, tell the story, the truth, empower, offer dignity, hope, empathy, compassion, seek change, communicate, give a voice to and so the list goes on. Two words come to my mind, smoke and arse!

But what lies behind the photojournalists vocabulary? Who’s offering a coherent example of how to do things? Traditionally, it’s the people at the top who give talks, write articles, review portfolios, sit on jury’s, win awards, offer masterclasses and work for the big agencies and magazines that lead the way. They are the role models, the influencers who countless thousands look to for direction. They are the people who lead by example and help to shape the industry.

Sadly, the profession is littered with casualties. Only last year Steve McCurry came under the spotlight when evidence emerged of his work being subjected to excessive image manipulation. He claims that he’s no longer a photojournalist but describes himself as a ‘visual storyteller.’ Isn’t that the same thing as a photojournalist? Come on Steve, what am I missing here?

Like I said, many photojournalists appear to be better at spin than ethics. Anyway, it was the production assistant who did it, according to Steve, who no longer works for him, so that’s cleared that up.

Italian photographer Paolo Viglione spotted the dodgy photoshopping at an exhibition in Italy.

One of the biggest inspirations in my life has been Sebastião Salgado but he too has had his ethics questioned. In 2012, his Genesis project came under fire when it became known the London exhibition at the Natural History Museum was being sponsored by Vale, a Brazilian mining company that has been voted the corporation with the most contempt for the environment and human rights in the world.

The Natural History Museum in London had no qualms about being in bed with Vale despite their appalling record on human rights and the environment.

Despite this, the Natural History Museum defended Vale’s involvement, saying that Vale and the Genesis exhibition had a mutual concern with ‘the balance of human relationships with our planet.’ A spokesman said: ‘We believe the challenge is to work responsibly to find a balance between use and protection of natural resources, and that Vale is working in a reputable way.’

In 2015, Brazil suffered the worst environmental disaster in its history when the Fundao dam burst killing 15 people including children and causing 32 million cubic metres of mineral waste to flood the landscape and contaminate the River Doce. Who was responsible? Yep, the dam was owned by Vale and BHP Billiton. So much for the Natural History Museum’s statement about Vale working in a reputable way. Ethics are such a disposable commodity.

As far as I know, Salgado has never commented about Vale sponsoring his work. I’m all ears Sebastião if you want to have your say.

What I find increasingly disturbing about photojournalism is the print sale market particularly under the guise of fine art. There appears to be no filter to determine what is appropriate and what isn’t. Going back to Salgado, his work, Refugees at the Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984, is currently being offered for sale by Beetles and Huxley for $16,000 for a 24” x 35” print, add vat and you’re looking at a hefty price of $19.200 for one print.

How does real human suffering become a high value fine art object? Would holocaust pictures ever be acceptable as fine art images? What code of ethics is being applied here?

I don’t want to discuss the epic beauty of his work or the tonal quality but I do want to bring the focus back to the content as that’s what appears to be missing in the majority of discussions. People have stopped seeing what the picture really shows. It is important to understand that the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was the worst in a century claiming the lives of some 1 million people and making countless others destitute. Those of you old enough to remember may recall the 1985 Live Aid concert, where the pop world came together to raise as much money as possible to help save the lives of millions of people on the brink of death.

The family featured in Salgado’s photo are real, they are not models but people facing the most brutal of circumstances living in a refugee camp with an uncertain future. The child at the front looks like he or she is ready to collapse, barely able to stand up and unable to look at the camera.

I asked Beetles and Huxley if they have an ethical policy in place or a programme of giving back. They said, ‘no, we do not have an official policy, we are a tiny business. I certainly don’t think that anything we sell is unethical, if that’s what you’re suggesting?’

So here we are in 2017 and guess what, Ethiopia is still facing a crisis from another famine. Did Salgado’s work make any difference and who really benefitted from it? I can’t help but wonder what happened to the family featured in his photograph and how would they feel knowing that a Western photographer has been selling ‘fine art’ prints of their suffering for $20k a print. Is there not something quite obscene about all of this?

Yes, I know Salgado can’t solve the Ethiopian famine on his own but I find it both ironic and vulgar that photographs of starving people can become objects of fine art. What kind of morals and terms of reference are at work here? Would any pictures of starving jews in concentration camps ever be appropriate as fine art? Can someone explain how human suffering can even become fine art?

I asked Beetles and Huxley if any of the profits from Salgado’s work go back to the people in the photograph or towards any food programmes in Ethiopia. I was told, ‘there is no official distribution of funds from Salgado to the people in his photographs as that would obviously be impossible to manage across all of his work. He and his wife are incredibly charitable and while I can’t tell you the exact programmes they support, I am sure that they have considered such ideas in the past. Very famously, for example, he has ploughed a lot of money into rebuilding the rainforest around where he lives in Brazil.’

Well I’m thrilled to know Salgado has a lovely garden rainforest around his family home again and of course, that justifies selling pictures of people on the brink of death as fine art. Suddenly, I’m feeling so much better about this.

I came across Ami Vitale on a webinar sometime back which led me to research her work. She’s a well respected photojournalist who’s won a ton of awards, she’s also a Nikon ambassador and regularly works for National Geographic. I found a black and white picture of a young girl on her website, Adema Balde from Guinea Bissua in West Africa. It struck me how sad she looked, her eyes starring back at me, full of sorrow. I read the caption and was upset to read that she died later that year trying to escape an arranged marriage.

Adema Balde lived a short life burdened with poverty and abuse and died escaping from the wretched circumstances she was born into. I was surprised to find Ami offering the image for sale as a fine art print with the option of having it signed for added kudos.

How is it appropriate to sell pictures of a dead child as fine art? Would it be acceptable for Ami to do that if the child was from her own community?

The picture is also for sale on Alamy with an incomplete caption and without any restrictions and no mention of the fact that the child died. Other images include a girl crying from the brutality of female genital mutilation and a close-up of the knife used to commit the atrocity. The same pictures are also for sale on Vitale’s website as fine art prints.

The picture shows a girl who’s just been circumcized but the caption on Alamy simply reads, ‘tears run down a child’s cheeks.’ Ami claims to find ‘the disregard for original purpose, unnerving.’ How is the original purpose supposed to be maintained when the accompanying caption itself is incorrect? This is the responsibility of the photographer. Also, no restrictions have been placed on the picture to ensure original purpose is maintained.

Ami has written an interesting article, Safeguarding Truth in Photojournalism, it’s about what she did when she discovered ‘misappropriated’ use of some of her pictures for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign when Boko Haram kidnapped 250 girls in Nigeria in 2014. She offers some useful advice about how photographers can monitor and gain control of their work in the digital age when pictures posted online can be stolen so easily and expresses outrage about how her subjects had been misused in a way that Westerners would not tolerate.

This picture of a girl who’s recently been circumcised actually contravenes UNICEF ethical guidelines for photographing children. The image is for sale as a fine art print. Would a picture of a Western child in these circumstances be acceptable material to be sold as a fine art print?

She says, it’s not about race, but about changing the rules where the developing world is concerned. “It’s not a black or white issue,” it’s about applying the same standards across the planet.”

I wonder if Ami had told Adema Balde that she was going to be selling her image as fine art prints for hundreds of dollars? Is this not reducing the life of a human being to a commodity to be sold for profit without any moral or ethical considerations. A commodity for rich Western art buyers to trade or mount on a wall like a hunting trophy from some perverse safari.

How is it even tasteful or appropriate to offer for sale a photograph of a dead child. Adema Balde deserves the same dignity and respect we would expect had she been our own daughter. Have I got this wrong?

The absurd collision of suffering as a fine art object in a contemporary environment.

And then there’s Ron Haviv, co-founder of VII photo agency, a big name in the industry who doesn’t see anything wrong with working with Lockheed Martin and BAE systems, two of the biggest weapons manufacturers in the world. Duckrabbit have produced several detailed posts about this which you can read here.

A picture sold to Lockheed Martin used as an advert features what looks like tracks with fire and smoke in the distance illustrating a direct hit on a moving target. The advert is for a weapons system known as a small diameter bomb used by aircraft. Yep, you read that right, Ron Haviv supplied his work to be used for an ad for a bomb. This is the man who travels the world documenting victims of war and suffering. What is going on in your head Ron?

A photo taken by Ron Haviv sold to Lockheed Martin that was used to to make an advert for a bomb.
A photo taken by Ron Haviv sold to Lockheed Martin that was used to to make an advert for a bomb.

Replying to Duckrabbit, Ron said, his commercial agent had sold the picture to Lockheed Martin and they exercised their right to add smoke and text. I can see what Ron’s doing here, he’s distancing himself from the transaction and passing the buck to his agent, similar to what Steve did, who blamed his production assistant. But wait, you can exercise control over how your work is used. You have every right to refuse a sale for whatever reason. Ron knows this already so I’d be interested to know what code of ethics he subscribes to.

Despite trying to distance himself from the picture sold to Lockheed Martin by blaming his commercial agent there’s no denying it’s Ron’s work. It’s featured in his book, Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul.

Call For Change

So are the people at the top providing strong leadership in the area of ethics? Are they suitable role models to follow? What can they teach us about ethics?

Interestingly, Steve McCurry is still working in the industry. I’m not sure if Salgado has retired to his garden, Ami is National Geographic’s darling and appears to have found a new direction focussing on wildlife and travel while Ron Haviv continues to shoot stories for big name clients. These are all experienced people. Surely, they should know better. Perhaps we just have low expectations or aren’t really bothered about ethics.

Returning to Souvid Datta who sparked this whole debate. He’s owned up and admitted to plagiarism. As for photographing ‘Beauty,’ well he’s taken a line from leading photojournalists and said she asked him to photograph her that way.

I think it’s time to call to account the practices we all employ as photographers including the professional, ethical, moral and commercial frameworks we work within. I want to encourage a wider discussion about how we curate and use pictures in the photography industry and challenge current practices and terms of reference which I feel are exploitative of the very people we claim to support.

Change has to be industry wide and global if we are to have any hope of offering real dignity, hope and respect to the weakest and most vulnerable people in the world, often powerless and without a voice.

Finally, if it’s acceptable for established photojournalists to make poor judgements and demonstrate questionable ethics and still be embraced by the industry then why is it right for Souvid Datta who is young and relatively inexperienced to be thrown out? Is he a scapegoat to pacify the public, to pretend everything is ok in the photojournalism industry. It smells like hypocrisy to me?

15 May 2017 – Update: Response from Ami Vitale

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Published in photojournalism


  1. Thomas Thomas

    Wow, really interesting article.

  2. Michael Preston Michael Preston

    Great article – very well written and so, so true.

    As a photographer, I feel so lucky to have had you as my teacher when I was first starting out. I learnt so much that has stuck in my head and I’m definitely a better photographer from the experience.

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      Thank you Michael, that’s very kind. I’ve always believed humanity has to come first.

  3. Really very well written & there is nothing to disagree with here. Thank you

  4. Really well written I wholeheartedly agree with everything you write. Thank you.

  5. shan bhattacharya shan bhattacharya

    You have really summed up the sentiment in this great artcle by this sentence – “A commodity for rich Western art buyers to trade or mount on a wall like a hunting trophy from some perverse safari.” Images of poverty and plight certainly invokes a sense of exoticism in the Westerner’s eye, thereby creating this market. Now it seems like several photojournalists from the subcontinent have also inherited that Western gaze and are continuing to serve that market.

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      I was so moved when I saw the picture of Adema Balde and read the caption, those words were the only way I could sum up how I was feeling. I knew it was wrong but was staggered others couldn’t. Adema Balde deserves dignity, she was never an object but a child.

  6. Tom Blaser Tom Blaser

    Thank you thank you thank you

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      You’re most welcome. Thank you for your support. Things need to change.

  7. aditya aditya


  8. aditya aditya

    interesting but I would like to point out its NOT THE AESTHETICS but the MARKETABILITY of the image by shock value …….

  9. Tom Tom

    Thanks for the article. The Salgado and Vitale images I think bring up the greatest dilemmas going through the mind of many photographers… that of documenting someone other than themselves, which will often be someone less well off, and then having the possibility of someone like Beetles and Huxley wanting to sell that print for a lot of money. Is it ethical? As you’ve presented it here with the Salgado example… well clearly it feels very uncomfortable. I know many that have accused him of being greedy, simply because he is rich from selling prints like this. But most young photographers aren’t. I gave up a long time ago on the idea of being able to afford to live in my home city of london (albeit a ridiculous example among cities for rising house prices). If someone suggested they would sell some of my photographs (of, among others, people affected by Leprosy, Bangladeshi stone miners, Syrian refugees, Armenian prisoners) for a high price, well I’m not sure what I would do. (In fact I don’t believe people would want my work privately on their wall, but the theoretical question remains). When I take personal work to magazines or online media, few want to pay anything of significance if they do at all. I’ve discovered my great love on this earth is to get to know people completely different from myself. I would love to spend the rest of my life collaborating with them to tell their story. But is it always unethical for me to make money from selling a private print of them? Or is there a line where the amount becomes obscene? I’m asking these questions quite genuinely, even knowing that they may never apply to me…

    • Tom Tom

      I should emphasise that I am really glad I read this article… and whole-heartedly agree on your points… hence my dilemma!

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      I think the question that needs to be asked first is, what are the terms of reference being applied to the fine art market? Who is deciding what is appropriate and what isn’t? Like I said in my article, would any pictures of people in concentration camps ever be deemed suitable for the fine art market? The answer is overwhelmingly no. Ask yourself why, then apply those same values to people suffering in refugee camps and determine why it’s justified to treat them any differently.

  10. Rob Johns Rob Johns

    Yes, everyone dies and I’ve never said no pictures can be sold. Stop trying to distort the article to something it’s not.

    I do have a suggestion for a way forward and the problem isn’t complex at all. It’s about being more careful how we curate work, being less greedy and thinking more about really affording dignity to the people we photograph.

    You’re example of a girl going to New York, working her way up to a position of wealth and power is stupid and irrelevant. Why? Well because she’s no longer a child, she’s an adult. I’m staggered you’re struggling to see that Adema is a child. Would you find it acceptable to have pictures of your dead child sold as an object of fine art? That’s the test we need to apply.

    You’re statement about driving traffic suggests that ethics are fine in Photojournalism and should not be discussed. I’ve actually sat on this story since 2008, questioning my own perspective for a very long time wondering have I got it wrong. The industry has got it wrong and needs to change.

    By your own admission, yes you are being silly and thank god you’re not linking you’re blog here.

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      Please share what you’ve written on this subject. Any links?

  11. It strikes me to see that in the end, it always comes down to the photographer ego: ‘it’s been a struggle…”, this and that…poor me…

    I’m no photographer. I’m a visual anthropologist (yes there is such thing). And as such, I want to say to photographers and image producers: either you come up with narratives that respect the subject (hint= do not deny agency over the discourse about themselves, do no deny dignity) + tells something interesting (hint= interrogates the interrelations that make up the complexities you should be interested in) , or you don’t shoot. It’s that simple.

    Bonus if your narrative contributes to change the world/ the root causes of violence ( we are still waiting for one to do so, maybe Smita Sharma’s way of working will)

    Double Bonus if your narrative questions the politics of representation (if you don’t know what that is: again, do not shoot and go educate yourself).

    Same for mediocre editors, jurys and gatekeepers.

    The rest is egoes and dust.

  12. Robert Robert

    “He claims that he’s no longer a photojournalist but describes himself as a ‘visual storyteller.’ Isn’t that the same thing as a photojournalist? Come on Steve, what am I missing here?”
    Do you you sincerely not understand the difference or are you playing innocent just to make a point? A visual story teller can use any device (fiction/reality) to tell a story. Photojournalism is a Visual story telling but not the other way necessarily.

    • Rob Johns Rob Johns

      Hence my comment, what am I missing here?

      • Robert Robert

        If Steve claims to be a Visual storyteller, he is not bound to rules of photojournalism. He can manipulate the images with photoshop till his heart bleeds pixels.

        • Rob Johns Rob Johns

          Yes, I want to know more. It’s not enough for him to say he’s a visual storyteller because a photojournalist is also a visual storyteller.

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