“It the line of sight to her face and

 “It is
impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month
or the year, without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human
perversity… and it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized man daily
washes down his morning repast.” (Sontag (2004; 96), Baudelaire wrote in
the 1860s)



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This dissertation examines the role
photographers play in the media when having to make ethical decisions
surrounding the pain and suffering in images. It will seek to integrate to what
extent images of pain and suffering help educate the world through media. It
will argue that although there have been many instances that photography
involving graphic images has impacted the world for the better; there have been
times when the need for them must be morally questioned.

 It will look at photojournalists and their
role in areas of conflict and the photograph taken by Kevin Carter of the young
girl with the vulture. I will discuss comments made by Susan Sontag and her
strong views surrounding issues of photos of suffering. It will look at how
photographer Paul Graham has taken a different stance in his approach to
photographing conflict.

It will look at documentary work by
the photographers Bruce Gilden, Diane Arbus

 and ask if this is exploiting vulnerable
people for the sake of their own game.


There has always been a strong debate
surrounding ethics in photography. Questions have always been asked about
whether a photographer should have taken a certain photo or not. This can often
involve taking photos of those of vulnerable people whether in the confines of
war or other issues of mental health and disability.

In this photograph (figure:
1) we see a woman in a refugee camp. The image shows she is holding a child who
looks upset and possibly crying; her hand is family outstretched in a defensive
manner seemingly objecting to her photo being taken. She blocks the line of
sight to her face and she is far from willing to have interaction with the
person at the other end of her hand. This interaction is quite possibly the
only power she has Simon Sharp documentary photographer states,

 “the subject or context of a strong photograph
in its essence communicates soul voice that subject. Unfortunately, these human
traits are impossible to communicate if subject in the image is unwilling and
is thus objectified into a soulless commodity”. (Sharp. S 2017)

Freelance photographers and photojournalists
need to create content and a story in order to survive in a “dog eat dog
world”. It is not just the photographers, it is the responsibility of the
editors as to which photo is published this in turn gives them great
responsibility so not to make suffering commodity.

This photograph, (figure: 2) again
taken in a refugee camp sees a child is hiding behind her hand. This time it is
not so much in defence of photographer but with the vulnerability of a child at
her lowest point. Her bread, possibly her only food still in her hands. She is
not happy and smiling but looks cold, dirty, and lonely and has been left with
no dignity.

The captions (figure: 3) that went
with this photo on the social media site “Facebook” gives the impression that
the child is hiding from the fighting under hand is in front of her face from
sadness when in fact she is hiding from the photographer.

The subjects in the above photos do
not want to be scrutinised and used as a commodity and most don’t even realise
that the image will be used for promotion in press and charity adverts as well
as promotional campaigns.

This sign (figure: 4) is a universally
understood image that most view as meaning “stop”. So why should it make any
difference whether it be a sign or a person holding their hand up similarly to
say “stop”. To these people, language is a big barrier and this sign is
possibly the only thing they have left to use; it is a physical sign they are
using to say “stop taking my photograph”

Simon Sharp also states,

 “let’s just forget about the subjects, they
are just powerless manic wins fashionably arranged in a 35mm shop window us all
to enjoy at our leisure”. (Sharp.S 2017)


Dorothea Lange’s image of the “migrant
mother” (figure: 5) is one the most famous photographs showing vulnerable
people. It has become one of the greatest showing the struggles of the great
depression. The woman in the photograph is Florence Owens Thompson and the
image was taken at Pea Pickers Camp at Wipomo, California in 1936. Dorothea
Lange took the photo while on a field trip for the resettlement administration,
an agency set up to help poor migrant workers. Public attention was drawn to
the plight of migrant mothers working and the degree of rural poverty when two
of the photos went into the San Francisco news feature that was demanding help
for the people in the camp. Nevertheless, Lang assured the subject that the
photograph would only be used for research purposes. Six photographs were taken
of the woman with her three children, the older two facing away from the camera
snuggling into their mother looking as if they are hiding, maybe from the
photographer or maybe from other prying eyes. The baby being held in her arms
is dressed only in a blanket; there is despair and pain in her expression
possibly wondering how she can continue. 24 years later in an interview Lange
states that she interviewed the subject and Thompson told her that she was 32
and had been surviving on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields. Lange
took six photographs of the woman with her children.

Sontag says that photographers get
preoccupied with getting the perfect photo and gives the example of the Farm
Security Administration photography project; the photographers took many images
until they thought the facial expressions of their subjects matched their
perceptions of dignity and poverty.

Thompson felt misinterpreted and
exploited; this photograph enhanced the life of the photographer but there was
no personal benefit to the mother or the children. The associated press quoted
her as saying, “that is my picture hanging all over the world and I cannot get
a penny out of it, what good is it doing me?” In “around and afterthoughts”,
Martha Rosler discredits claims that it was unrealistic for Thompson to benefit
from the photographs as it had gone beyond being merely a photograph of her.
Rosler states that in her field notes, Lange quotes Thompson as saying “she
thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me”. Rosler’s
comments show how this case illustrates documentary photographs have two
moments; one being “the immediate instrumental one arguing for or against a
social practice and ideology; two, the conventional aesthetic, historical
movement in which the viewer’s argumentativeness cedes to the pleasure afforded
by the aesthetic brightness of the image. (Rosler.M Around and afterthoughts
1981 P.137)

As Susan Sontag describes photographs as
being able to turn the world into a set of collectable objects that we can own,
making us feel powerful and knowledgeable. She says that photographs interpret
the world and not record it as evidence. As Lange took six photographs of
Thompson and chose the one that best met her preconceptions, it could be
questioned if Lange was trying to show a reality with this photo or to show how
she saw the situation in the camp.

Sontag talks about photographers
believing that reality is hidden, and it is a photographer’s role to reveal it.
She says about Dorothea Lange that Lang feels her portraits of others are
self-portraits, but Thompson certainly did not see the image taken of her as

The conditions at the camp that
Thompson was that was greatly improved but Thompson did not benefit personally.