By Kari Lindberg
The ethical challenges of producing and disseminating images were in the spotlight for the first Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) conference of the 2018-2019 term. Topics included the impact of social media and user-generated content (UGC), the importance of diversity in the photo industry, and the challenges of getting informed consent.
“The Ethical Image: Challenges in Visualising a Changing World”, held on Saturday, 6 October, featured panel discussions bringing together experts from the media, academia and non-government organisations from across Asia and beyond (programme and bios of moderators and panellists).
Introducing the conference, Kevin Sites, JMSC Associate Professor of Practice, noted that photography has the ability to distil a moment into a single frame, but urged the audience to ponder its limitations, especially in the age of social media. “Journalistic standards are being eroded,” said Sites. “Social media is the new publishing platform, but who moderates it?”
Diving into this question, David Campbell, Director of Communications and Engagement at the World Press Photo Foundation and moderator of the first panel, led a discussion on the new constraints and pressures that have come with the abundance of visual content created by UGC.
The drawback, though, noted Tanvi Mishra, Photo Editor and Curator of The Caravan magazine/PIX, is that as technology and social media make it easier to circulate visual content, the visual department is always the first victim of financial cutbacks in traditional media outlets. This pushes many Indian photographers looking to make a living to cater their photos towards the needs of Western media, rather than produce content for an Indian audience.
Echoing similar sentiments of the changes UGC has brought to the newsroom, Philippe Massonnet, Asia Pacific Regional Director of Agence France-Presse, noted that UGC has created a need for more third-party curation of images, as they are often the first visuals to accompany any given news story. “The way we deliver news is different, now it’s shared via social media,” which he added, “poses challenges because you want to provide quality, but you have to be fast, curate and can’t make a mistake.”
Iain Martin, Asia News Editor at Storyful, a social media intelligence agency that sources and verifies insights for media companies, noted that the role search engines and social media are playing in content distribution. “The connections to the author and story are lost,” especially as trust, or a lack of, plays a bigger role between social media and UGC.
Julia Chiung-wen Hsu, country contact for the Chinese-speaking network of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, explained how in Taiwan closed caption TV’s and dashboard cameras are regularly used in news broadcasts. Hsu suggested journalists need to self-regulate the content they use to a greater extent. “When you search accidents on YouTube, it’s easy to see them,” said Hsu. “For journalists, think twice [and ask] is it necessary to make these video clips?”
Martin stressed the vital importance of double checking the source of any UGC content. He stated one should always ask “Who is the source?” and “Work backward to figure out what is their motivation.”
Aunohita Mojumdar, Editor of the Himal Southasian and moderator of the next panel, “The Rohingya Crisis: Politics of Representation”, focused the discussion on deconstructing the hard question every photographer in a hostile environment is faced with: When to help those you’re photographing and how to gain the consent of your subject?
Hannah McKay, a staff photographer for Reuters who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis, described a scene from her time in Bangladesh when it became obvious a woman at the river needed help from those at the top of the bank to make it out. McKay and her colleagues worked to pull her to safety.
Noting a similar emotional challenge, Patrick Brown, 2018 World Press Photo of the Year Nominee for his work documenting the Rohingya refugees, stated a need for “balance between aesthetics and emotions and the human voice in your own chest.”
Providing a local perspective of the Rohingya crisis, photographer Minzayar Oo, described the complexities of covering health clinics in 2015 after the Burmese government had kicked out all the NGOs, documenting refugees using Skype to communicate with relatives and loved ones who had left camps for Thailand and Malaysia, as well as his experience getting arrested in Bangladesh.
Panellists also discussed seeking the consent of subjects for the use of images. For McKay, there was an acknowledgment that sometimes asking for consent is not feasible, especially when photographing a mass of people. However, she noted there are tricks of the trade that can help conceal a subjects’ identity.
Brown, describing the underlying power dynamic between photographer and subject, said that to get consent he will “ask the person four to five different ways.”
Moderating the third panel, titled “How to Produce and Use Images Ethically,” Robert Godden, Director of Rights Exposure, a human rights consultancy, noted the importance of understanding who is taking the photo, for what purpose and for what reason.
“If you’re exposing a human rights issue, what about the subject’s rights?” asked panellist Aarti Kapoor, Managing Director and Lead Consultant at Embode, another human rights consultancy, “The experience of how the survivor is shown is important.”
Underlying the notion of ethics, was the question of who is the photographer.
Panellist Jessica Lim, Director of Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops, said the dominance of Western media and a lack of representation from other parts of the world had helped spark the idea of the festival. “Western media can’t find us, so we’re are going to make sure that there are so many of us that you can’t claim to not be able to find us.”
Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel, Photo Editor at National Geographic magazine, said it was very important that those documenting specific racial communities in the United States were members of those communities, citing an April 2018 edition featuring race.
Taking it a step further, Stanley So, Education Manager of Oxfam Hong Kong, noted that in their previous campaigns to shed light on local poverty and the integration struggles of ethnic minority communities in Hong Kong, all visual documentation included components where the subjects would engage with the audience in their exhibitions, emphasizing their own empowerment.
Concluding the conference was a discussion, “The Way Forward – Building Practical Solutions”focussed on how to enhance the changing image landscape, moderated by Claudia Hinterseer, Senior Video Producer at the South China Morning Post. All panellists pressed the need to question the purpose of photographic work and the need to publish.
Eric Wishart, former editor-in-chief of AFP, asked whether journalistic ethics now required a new way of thinking or a new code and how such new rules could reflect the pace of technological growth. They also emphasized providing practical support to young photographers in regard to issues such as consent and working with vulnerable individuals, such as children and survivors of trafficking and sexual abuse.
The conference, organized by the World Press Photo Foundation ‘Explore’ programme, JMSC, and Rights Exposure, was filmed and four separate videos of each panel will be published. In addition, a two-page outcomes document will be compiled and shared. WYNG Media Award (WMA) and Google News Initiative supported the event.
[Note about the top photo: The Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam was due to join the conference as a moderator, but remains in detention in Dhaka, charged under article 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act. Our panellists posed for a photo with Shahidul “masks” in a show of solidarity with their colleague.]
Kari Lindberg is a student in the Master of Journalism programme at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
Photography by Li Chen