Photography: Committing Soft Murder?

The paparazzi aren’t a modern pest, nor do they solely prey on the Justin Bieber’s and Lady Diana’s of our world.

At least that’s what Susan Sontag, famed writer and filmmaker, would have you believe in her 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography.

Sontag likens the camera to a car – both are devices that have been around for decades, sold to the consumer as a predatory weapon—one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring to action. She adds that there’s something predatory in the act of taking a picture.

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

As a photojournalist, this notion rankles me. I’ve been trained to always get consent for a photograph, to ensure that the person is at least complicit in his or her own “death”. In working with female former child soldiers for the past two years in Uganda, I was also clear to point out that their photos would end up online – visible in effect to the world. I firmly believe that the same stringent code of ethics journalists apply to the written word, should apply equally to the digital image.

But there is certainly a grey area to ethics in photography. By it’s very nature a photograph is only capturing one moment in time and – more importantly – one cropped viewpoint of a moment in time. We the photographer decide what you, the secondhand observer, sees. Kevin Carter’s infamous, Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a young Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture springs to mind. According to one of his former colleagues, what Carter’s image did not show was the nearby parents and adjacent feeding station.

Liz Wells touches upon this in her 2004 article “Thinking about photography: debates, historically and now”. Using the example of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of the Migrant Mother, Wells extrapolates upon the notion of how photographers will only use those images that suit their agendas.

Margaret Bourke-White, an American photojournalist who worked for Life and Fortune magazines before becoming the first female war correspondent to work in combat zones, admitted to doing just that:

“Sometimes I would set up the camera in a corner of the room, sit some distance away from it with a remote control in my hand, and watch our people while Mr. Caldwell talked with them. It might be an hour before their faces or gestures gave us what we were trying to express, but the instant it occurred the scene was imprisoned on a sheet of film before they knew what had happened.”

Here Bourke-White confirms Sontag’s worst fears. Like a predatory animal, the photographer waits patiently for her prey to let its guard down before pouncing, before going for that “soft murder”.

Now, in Bourke-White’s defence, she presumably had the consent of the “victim”. And one could argue she was aware of the so-called Heisenberg Effect – namely the how the very presence of an observer will affect the behaviour of the observed. By waiting for an hour, Bourke-White would have eventually just become part of the background scenery, allowing her to finally get a candid shot of her subject.

But one can’t help but doubt her motives when using terms such as “gave us what we were trying to express” and “imprisoned”.

Despite the ambiguous intentions of Bourke-White, I think her anecdote does highlight the difficulty of capturing a natural, unposed photo. One solution could be the anthropographic one I adopted in northern Uganda. Not only did I not take any pictures of the women for the first couple of weeks of interviews, but I also gave them digital cameras, therefore de-mystifying the device.

By embedding myself with these women and giving them cameras, they slowly became less aware of my presence and comfortable with taking photographs and in turn being photographed.

Photography doesn’t have to be “soft murder”.