image ethics – the invisible line

Ideally, the front page of the newspaper is nothing short of attention grabbing. That is, in essence, the whole point of a front page – draw attention in order to sell copies. Where do we draw the line though, between what imagery is acceptable to broadcast to potentially thousands of viewers, and what is not? Where is this invisible line drawn? Is depicting the lifeless corpse of a toddler an acceptable form of attention?

Aylan Kurdi – Taken by Nilüfer Demir , September 2nd, 2015

Photojournalism is the way in which we tell news stories through images. It most commonly refers to photographs taken of notable events and is a form of conveying emotion and a sense of reality that often gets lost when in the form of text. Photojournalism is a critical part of successful journalism. As with all other aspects of journalistic practice, there is a code of ethics that requires one’s commitment with, in order to be deemed fair and accurate journalism. In Australia, this code is presented by the National Press Photographers Association, or the NPPA, and sets a code of conduct that is widely accepted and abided by within the practice. Images of tragedy can be interpreted by one of the standards of photojournalism in the following way:

“Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”

The story of Aylan Kurdi is undoubtedly a tragedy. The three-year-old Syrian refugee was found washed up on a beach in Turkey on September 2nd, 2015. A series of photographs taken and shared by Nilüfer Demir, of the lifeless body lying in the sand went viral shortly after being taken and quickly reached two billion views within 12 hours. Aylan’s death was caused earlier that morning, when the inflatable boat that his family, among 12 other Turkish people were attempting to illegally flee their country to seek asylum was capsized. Aylan was not the only casualty of this disaster, with his father being the only one in their family of four to survive the event that took the lives of his wife and two children. The boat was a small dinghy that intended to smuggle citizens out of Bodrum, Turkey and into Greece for the price of $5860, to ultimately escape their corrupt and war torn country. It left under the cover of darkness – around midnight, loaded beyond capacity and without proper life preservers. When it capsized shortly after departing, the captain fled and all the passengers were left to fend for themselves with faulty lifejackets. Many didn’t survive the night.

When the photo of Aylan, one of the first of the bodies to wash ashore was captured, Demir knew it was instantly going to shock the world. The internet’s rising popularity meant that it was viewed digitally and spread by millions of people in hundreds of countries within just hours. After that, those who had not seen it on a screen would have seen it in the countless newspaper publishing’s which shared the photo. All over, news reporters deemed this photo as front-page worthy. Thousands of publishers sent the image out into the world for consumption. Billions of people had access to this image within 24 hours of its capture, but what did this mean for us? Was it an example of ethical photojournalism?

Has it ever been okay in the past to publish images of death without any sort of content warning? This image obviously was not everyday viewing, which probably added to its effect. The image, as chilling as it is, sparked worldwide conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis. It put a face to the stories that everyone had been hearing and dismissing, but this image wasn’t easily dismissed. Conversation exploded in relation to the refugee crisis. Everyone knew, and it was all they wanted to talk about. Donations to charities supporting refugees in Syria escalated up 55 times the normal amount in the following weeks. This photo was an obvious turning point for the crisis and created a positive movement for it, but the image wasn’t without backlash. Although no legal action was sought, many people deemed this photo as highly offensive. Young children themselves would have been subject to this image, mentally fragile people, and sensitive people on top of that. There were many people who didn’t deem the explicit photo as essential or necessary viewing for the public.

Over time, many photos have caused debate as to whether they were ethical or unethical. A photo titled “The Terror of War” taken by Nick Ut in 1973 depicts a terrified group, among them a naked Vietnamese girl, crying and screaming as she runs away naked from a napalm explosion during the second world war. The image was a big eye-opener for the public in regards to the unknown horrors of war that had been hidden from so many. “The Struggling Girl,” captured by Kevin Carter in 1993 shows a starving African girl with a vulture eyeing her off in the background. This photo caused controversy, as many believed the photographer should have helped and fed the girl instead of taking a photo. The backlash from the public eventually lead to the photographer’s suicide, in response to all the hate he had received for simply capturing a significant moment.

So what actually determines whether a photograph is or is not ethical? There is a very thin line that photographers tread when under the scrutinising eye of the public. It seems as though many images can comply by the NPAA code of ethics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be interpreted as such by a wider audience. For an image to pass off as acceptable, ideally it should be one that evokes deep emotional responses while also triggering positive repercussions. A journalist can never be certain how their images will be interpreted, so how can they be certain they are always ethical in the eyes of the public?


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