“There is nothing remotely objective about photography”


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The quotation of the title, the photograph at right, and the words below are from Object Lessons, an article by the photojournalist Nina Berman, who also teaches at the Columbia University Journalism School.  The article caught my eye because it features some powerful images and also because, concurrently, I was reading an intriguing Zeteo submission about how news stories fit within long-long-standing narrative traditions (e.g. of parables or moral tales).

That said, I turn you over to Professor Berman, from the aforementioned piece, which appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Columbia Magazine:

In class, I teach ethics, which is simple, and not. The number-one rule is that photojournalists cannot construct scenes and then pass off the pictures as found moments. Photojournalists observe and frame; the final image cannot contain people or objects that didn’t originally exist in that frame, nor can people or objects be removed from that frame. Everything else — color, saturation, contrast — is largely up for grabs. This is where things get murky.

Image effects are allowed today that weren’t considered appropriate in journalism just a few years ago. Influential photographers, sometimes in collaboration with a photography lab or digital retoucher, champion a style or create an app that is embraced by editors, and before you know it, we’re seeing a million pictures in the press looking the same, regardless of where they were shot or what they capture. A few years back, increasing the clarity and desaturating the color was popular. Now we’re in love with high dynamic range and blazing perfection. . . .

There are stylistic trends in art and in literature, and everyone acknowledges them. But rarely are they cited in photojournalism, perhaps because people still cling to the idea of photography as an objective or neutral medium that captures a shared truth. There is nothing remotely objective about photography.



It might be said of Berman’s best work that it is not photographs, but photographs with captions. The image reproduced at the top of this post is captioned as follows by Berman: This souvenir notebook with the Statue of Liberty on its cover was used by enslaved women working in New Jersey hair-braiding salons to record their tips, which were then confiscated. The trafficker, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison.”




May I in closing also call attention to an excellent piece from Columbia‘s Fall 2013 issue: The Pillage Option, by Chris Cannon, about University of British Columbia Professor James G. Stewart’s efforts to call attention to and get convictions for “corporate war crimes,” in relation to African civil wars and natural resources in particular. Stewart’s paper, Corporate War Crimes:
Prosecuting the Pillage of Natural Resources , was published in 2011 by the Open Society Institute.

The caption for the related picture: “Gold miners dig an open pit at the Chudja mine in northeastern Congo, February 2009. / Reuters / Finbarr O’Reilly.”

Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor

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