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Towards an Ethical Code in Photojournalism Practices

May 28, 2020

Photographer – Salik Ahmad –
Captioned: 90-year-old Kajodi trudges home 400 km away amid coronavirus lockdown.
Published in –

Many years ago, the Wanted Series initiated the dialogue on ethics in photography. A seminar was organised at Max Muller Bhavan Delhi in collaboration with Goa-Cap and Askar. Subsequently, the Goethe Institute at New Delhi tried to formulate a working group which would explore the question of Ethics in photographic practices. A large seminar was followed by a couple of close think-thank meeting, and then we all disappeared. Going back to the conversation that we generated, I remember being numbed by the impossibility of it all. Yet, ethics as praxis and as a concept metaphor has always remained important to me as a critical tool while looking at (looking through) any cultural act or artefact. In today’s world, we can no longer hold on to the notion of a ‘Universal Good’. Over the years my notions of ethics have been shaped by moral negotiation processes, red-flagging arbitrariness or manipulation.

Kevin Carter, ‘The vulture and the Little Girl’,  first appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993. Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_vulture_and_the_little_girl

‘The Vulture and the Little Girl’ is perhaps one of the earliest instances in recent memory which threw up grave questions regarding ethics in photojournalist practices.  Initially, Carter claimed to have come upon the scene, snapped a few photos, and then chased the bird away. 

 “You won’t believe what I’ve just shot! … I was shooting this kid on her knees, and then changed my angle, and suddenly there was this vulture right behind her! … And I just kept shooting – shot lots of films.  Silva asked him where he shot the picture and was looking around to take a photo as well. Carter pointed to a place 50 m (160 ft) away. Then Carter told him that he had chased the vulture away. He told Silva he was shocked by the situation he had just photographed, saying, “I see all this, and all I can think of is Megan”, his young daughter. ”   (https://joesackcom.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/the-vulture-and-the-child-what-happened-next/

These were Carter’s immediate words to his colleague João Silva, (a part of the Bang- Bang Club specialising in reporting from conflict areas). However, Carter eventually admitted that he watched the scene for about twenty minutes, waiting for the vulture to get closer to the boy and hoping that it would spread its wings for a more dramatic photo. After the vulture refused to move, Carter finally chased the bird away. 

Salik Ahmad’s ‘ 90-year-old Kajodi trudges home 400 km away amid coronavirus lockdown‘ succeeded in spotlighting the effect of CONVID lockdown on the migrant labourers of India, apart from photo narrating plights of victims during the conflict, it also bears similarity to Carter’s image in the use of dramatic foreshortening and depth-of-field. There is one crucial difference and this perhaps reflects the culture of consumption in our times. The readers of Outlook and the online viewers of the image raised no question regarding the fate of Kajodi. How did the photographer intervene in a human capacity? Did he (even) offer her some water to drink? Has Kajodi reached home?

 Many years ago…in the early 90’s Cater and New York times had to face these questions and these questions made the photographer and publication realise that lines between being a photographer and being a human being could not be blurred beyond a point. Carter’s eventual suicide about 5 years after taking the photograph should not be directly linked to the psyco-emotional impact of ‘The Vulture and the Little Girl’.  He had seen enough morbid violence and death in South Africa and Sudan for any sensitive soul to be deeply affected.

Contrary to perception, photojournalism has an uneasy relationship with ‘truth’. The ‘girl’ from South Sudan turned out to be a boy, and Carter framed the shot to maximise the impression that this disaster was taking place in the ‘middle of nowhere’ where in reality it was on a runway with her parents just a few minutes away in a place surrounded by UN workers and journalists. In Salik Ahmad’s work, I do not know if her name is really Kajodi, is she really 90 years old? Is her village really 400 km away? Such details get lost in the spectacle of a tragedy and conflict generates. In a way, way beyond truth, this is a work in the politics of representation. 

Photographers easily forget that their subject matter is (at least) an equal collaborator in the economic and cultural capital a picture produces. They also (always) forget that they are very much a part of the frame, that they exist within the photograph and not outside it. If political photography and photojournalism want to break through the structures they critique, these realisations are important.

Rahul Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, School of Communication, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Published in author’s personal blog – https://theblackyellowarrow.blogspot.com as ‘Coronavirus India | Has Kajodi Reached Home? | Our South Sudan Moment’

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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