"Ethics of Attention Part 2"
This week’s newsletter is a bridge to next week’s final installment of “Ethics of Attention,” detailing how and why I decided to pull an interview from publication, mainly because I no longer wanted to give the interviewee a platform attached to my name. Hopefully the connections will be clear to my readers! And if you missed the first part, here it is.
Recently there was an article in Vice about a white photographer who made a project of colorizing photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Soon after the piece ran, it was revealed that the photographer, in addition to colorizing the black and white photographs, had altered some of the images and added smiles to these photographs that had been taken in Tuol Sleng prison before the subjects were murdered.
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which maintains a vast archive of material relating to the Khmer Rouge, and a survivor himself, said his heart pounded when he saw revised versions of the photographs. “How can you change hell to happiness?” he said. “It was a grave injustice to the victims to alter such a piece of history, which is still a living history.”
Here is part of the Associated Press Code of Ethics for Photojournalists :
“AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.”
And National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics:
Visual journalists and those who manage visual news productions are accountable for upholding the following standards in their daily work:
Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
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.
While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
Photojournalists have a code of ethics: the truth of a photograph must not be altered, because otherwise it’s not journalism, it’s propaganda. Some people defended the photographer’s addition of smiles by calling it art, but art should face harsh truths rather than cover them up with false cheer. It’s like when society asks women to smile, to make them more palatable to their viewers, no matter their true disposition. By adding smiles to their faces, this photographer misleads viewers and misrepresents his subjects!
In her essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Susan Sontag discusses her experiences seeing photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau and calls it a “negative epiphany.” She writes, “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously.” In fall 2019 I attended a professional learning session at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and walked through the exhibit, Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not Far Away. I had a similar experience touring this exhibit. Walking room to room I first tried to hide my tears and then I wondered how anyone could see what I was seeing and not weep, so I openly wept. I was distressed when I saw a display about the Nuremberg Laws, and the term, mischling—those with mixed Aryan and Jewish ancestry. My partner’s grandfather converted to Christianity from Judaism when he arrived in America, something that isn’t much understood or discussed in their family, so naturally, I thought of him.
Then I saw a display about Dr. Feng Shan Ho. He was a Chinese Consul General in Vienna during World War II, and going against orders, he issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees, which allowed them to travel to Shanghai, and escape the concentration camps. Many times, we throw our hands up in the air because we are powerless, and we know that each day people with real power choose not to use it, even when it’s a matter of life or death, so seeing someone risk their life on such a large scale was a minor relief. If the exhibit as a whole should have taught me anything, it was that overidentification with one’s religious, ethnic or national identity can lead to terrible crimes, but even as I chastised myself for seeking a personal connection amid the horrors—to my partner’s family, and Dr. Feng Shan Ho—it comforted me seeing a Chinese face and knowing that someone who shared my ancestry had seen the horrors and put their self-interest aside and risked their life for these people.
I took a break and walked along a corridor and saw, through a window, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island not far off. I took a photograph and posted it online, noting my location at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and added the words, “In 1939 the Jewish refugees of the St. Louis were denied entry to the United States.” After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we posted signs around the school where I work instructing students, some of whom are undocumented immigrants, what to do if stopped by ICE. We as Americans are often told of our exceptionalism, and maybe what that really means is we’re exceptionally good at tolerating gross inequality and injustice.
Should we view photographs of Holocaust victims? What of their stolen dignity? I don’t know the answer, but I am certain that there would be even more Holocaust deniers if there was no photographic evidence of the atrocities. Photographs undeniably make it real. It’s just too bad we need these reminders not to commit these crimes in the first place.
I love to receive comments and questions about photography and cameras!
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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