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Photojournalism ethics: response from Ami Vitale

Following my earlier post examining ethics in photojournalism, Ami Vitale responded.

On Sunday 14 May, @mariakaribu tweeted asking Ami Vitale why she was selling a picture of a 6 year old girl Awa, being cleaned with an alcohol swab the morning after being circumcised as a fine art print. Ami, @Amivee responded saying, NOT TRUE!! Images are not being sold as fine art!!

So why the absolute denial?

Well, this is where it gets a little confusing. Go to Ami’s website and when you click on ‘Shop,’ it’ll take you to a section that clearly states ‘Fine Art Prints.’ There’s some useful information here saying you can find other images in her archive.

“We can all surround ourselves with beautiful artwork and I am happy to ship to any place on the planet…just say where! Ami Vitale offers a curated collection of art from around the world or you can find an image in her diverse archive from over 90 countries.  

It’s here that you could select images of Awa and Adema to buy as fine art prints as well as others.

Ami’s response is below:

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am guilty of a lot of things and I struggle every day to the right thing but believe it or not, I was not aware that every single image on my website is marked as an image that can be purchased as a fine art print. Thank you for sharing this with me. I am trying to rectify it right now.
Rob – Not all are for sale but some were that really shouldn’t.
I have never sold any images of Adema as fine art prints. You are welcome to check in with my printer to see what I have sold in the course of my career.
Rob – I think what Ami is saying here is that despite being for sale, none have actually sold. No need to check, I accept your word. Thank you
Years ago we had tried to set up an auto print sale gallery on my site partnering with Hance partners. Since then, we built a new website where I offered a special section of Fine Art prints that were curated. I did not realize that the backend archive had this option for the public to view and buy prints directly. I thought it was taken down after we decided to handle all print requests though email.
I have received exactly (number removed by Rob) print orders though Photoshelter years ago and none of those images were from Guinea Bissau. 
Frankly, I think there are lots of things to discuss. I was a conflict photographer for years and always have struggled whether that was ethical or not. I have talked about this struggle for a long time. Is it okay to photograph the most brutal, violent aspects of life. Should I have ever even taken pictures of war, of  suffering,  of FGM? At the time, I thought it was going to make a difference.
Guinea Bissau did not ban FGM until 2011 and I dont know if those images ever had any impact globally but I do know on a local level, the women in the village had long discussions when I was living there about whether or not I should photograph it. And in the end, a couple of the younger women asked me to stay and photograph it because they wanted this cultural right of passage to change.
But not everyone agreed and I have always struggled with my role as a photographer. I have tried to be sensitive and stay for years covering just one story in order to fully understand it and to have the trust and blessings of the communities I am working in.

Adema is not a stranger to me. She was a close friend and she was my sister’s best friend. That image of her swimming in the touffe was not an image of a girl who was suffering at that moment I photographed her.  She was playing and then asked me to make a picture of her. I brought it back to her and she was proud and thought she looked beautiful. I felt the same but  I know people see  things differently.  I never saw her as “impoverished and sad” and more importantly, she never saw herself as impoverished and sad. That is the worst part. 

I am sure I have made many mistakes but I try hard to be thoughtful about how I work and treat people and what I photograph. The print profits are donated every year back into the communities Im working in. I have believed for a long time that photography is powerful and must be used to do more than just make pretty or sensational images. They must be used as a tool and if I can have an impact whether through supporting the communities, or creating awareness,  I do my best.  its not always perfect.

First and foremost, thank you to Ami for offering a detailed, and what looks like an honest response and for not passing the buck on to someone else although I’m not sure exactly who the ‘we’ refers to, I guess it could just be her style of writing.What’s clear is that it definitely pays to slow down and make sure we do things right rather than be in a hurry to get as much work out there as soon as possible, I think that’s a big problem these days.

I think the back end of your website needs tidying up a little. On many images the filenames are meaningless and some pictures are available to buy as fine art prints, others are not and some should not be.

You’ve spoken out a lot in the past about misrepresentation, well having incomplete and changing captions from one platform to the next is going to lead to just that. You’re not helping the situation and cries of misrepresentation then become hollow and meaningless. The captions on Alamy for example look as if you’ve run out of ink!

Consistency is important.


The caption for this photo on Alamy simply reads: Tears run down a child’s cheeks.

On Alexia’s website.

On Alexia’s website the caption reads: Awa, 5, cries after being circumcised. Once a girl passes through the rite of circumcision, she is considered a respectable prospect for marriage. A future husband will sometimes pay a dowry to claim a bride before she becomes a teenager.

On your website.

On Ami’s own website the caption reads: In a culture where the opportunities for a women to be so honoured, celebrated and recognised are few, circumcision becomes disproportionately significant, in spite of the pain it brings.

For accurate captioning I’m sure you’ve heard of the five Ws. Of course you have, I don’t need to tell you that but it’s a good place to start.

I want to highlight the essential need to curate work carefully and appropriately for different platforms. We all suffer from image fatigue and it’s easy to get attached to the work we produce so it’s really useful to have a fresh pair of eyes look at it. Ask someone who’s not afraid to criticise you. That’s not a bad thing if it’s done correctly, it’s how we grow.

Beyond careful curating, you as the author of your work, are also responsible for stipulating how your work can be used. When I found your work on Alamy, no restrictions were in place and I was free to select advertising as the industry for many of your images. Again this comes back to misrepresentation.

Once again, thank you to Ami for taking the time to respond.


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