It has to be seen to be believed : the rise of photojournalism and development of its ethical values

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Is the professional practice of photojournalism a visual means of conveying information that is in the public interest or are the confronting images that photojournalism capture from cataclysmic events simply sensational? Is seeing believing? While photography may supply a visual trigger to memory and recognition, there are no easy answers to those questions. This thesis probes the nuances of the professional practice, firstly by taking a historical perspective of the beginnings of photography and the gradual rise of documentary photography; and secondly by examining the ethical values that gradually evolved around the practice. Extensive historical research reveals that the vast majority of images made in the first half-century of the medium's history were documentary in that they were a record of a place or an event. Of specific interest to this research are confronting images: images that shocked, images that provided an unmediated vision of an external reality, images whose objectivity was neither limited by the ability of, nor sullied by, the biases of the photographer. Examination of relevant documentary photographs that shock while seeking to inform allows a reflection of what is in the public interest and whether, in fact, the public feels it benefits from such visual information. In this thesis, photojournalism is examined through the ethical principles that the public has a right to the information conveyed by images of major events, many of them focused on tragedy and disaster, and that it is in the public’s interest to have access to that information. The research revolves around definitions of morality, the importance of ‘bearing witness’ to terrible events, and the place and effectiveness of established guidelines established by industry watchdogs and individual media organisations. This research project, presented as a non-traditional thesis, examines and discusses the relevant literature focused on the basic elements of ethical practice in journalism in general, and photojournalism in particular. While the literature that addresses ethics and the public right to know related to photojournalism is not extensive, the more extensive literature on journalism ethics generally may be applied to the practice of photojournalism. The research questions that direct this thesis focus on three important areas related to photojournalism – the right to privacy, the public right to know, and the question of ‘taste’; that is, identifying what may provoke public offence. In teasing out those questions, the thesis acknowledges that a photograph is made hoping someone will look at it and, in doing so, concedes that the manner by which its visual message is received, whether indifferently or with compassion, can have moral dimensions. The intention of an examination of photojournalism ethics is not to define right and wrong approaches to every conceivable situation, which is not possible given that every situation encountered by a photojournalist is complex and different resulting in complex and different responses, but to evaluate media and practitioners’ actions, established ethical guidelines, and the public response to photojournalism practice. Photojournalism as a means of informing the public often has an immediate impact that has raised fundamental issues of ethical professional practice. Ethical values in this instance are not so concerned with getting people to do what they believe is right but rather helping them to decide what is right. But the problem with attempts to define photojournalism ethics is that answers are not readily found when they are most needed.
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