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Sometimes, Poking Your Camera into People’s Lives Just Doesn’t Feel Right

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As a photojournalist, are you ever embarrassed, uncomfortable or even ashamed of what you do?

I recently spent a week at the Arrupe Center in northern Cambodia documenting the lives of villagers. The center works with people who are mostly landmine victims, but it also helps villagers who suffer from polio and HIV/AIDS.

Searching for Photogenic Victims

I went from village to village looking for people to photograph. The first group of HIV/AIDS people I met were too healthy looking, so I rejected them.

The woman in the next village was actively doing work that was not photogenic enough.  So I rejected her.

Late one morning I came across a grandmother sleeping with her newly born grandson. The grandmother was HIV positive and I photographed what I believed was a very poignant scene. After all, that was what I was doing, wasn’t it — looking for a photographic scene?


In another place, I found a boy who was in a wheelchair with obvious physical disabilities, but he had polio and I needed landmine victims.  So I rejected him.

For days I visited people who had lost limbs — an arm, a leg, maybe both or more — and assessed whether they were photogenic enough. I also wanted the person working on something interesting because, after all, I’m a photojournalist, and we don’t set things up, do we?


In one village, I came upon a landmine victim who was a farmer working with his cattle. At last, something I could photograph.

I moved in close to get a shot as the farmer gave one of his cows an injection — making certain, of course, that his prosthetic leg was prominent. The animal leaped in the air as it reacted to the pain of the needle. I got what I needed, a photograph of a landmine victim working on his farm.


What Gives Us the Right?

For most of my life, I have worked with marginalized people, documenting their struggle for a better life. What I sometimes wonder is what gives me the right or justification to poke my camera into these people’s lives and make decisions about whether they are photo-worthy or not?

We often justify what we do by saying that photographs can make a difference and change things. I don’t believe that. Photographs can inform people and be part of a series of events that change things, but they don’t change things by themselves.

Am I embarrassed, uncomfortable or even ashamed sometimes? Yes.

All photos © Michael Coyne.

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13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Sometimes, Poking Your Camera into People’s Lives Just Doesn’t Feel Right"

#1 Comment By Tony Blei On June 11, 2009 @ 11:53 am


If we don't tell people, how will they know?

Being a photojournalist is more difficult than most people know. The policeman or firefighter gets counseling for what she's seen and been through. What do we get? Another assignment.

Photojournalism isn't just a job, it's a way of life. The people on the sidewalk can avert their eyes, but you can't. That's not what you signed up for.

Our pictures have power. Look at what W. Eugene Smith did in Minamata, Japan, Eddie Adams in Viet Nam, or Jeff Widener in Tiananmen Square. Because they were there, change became possible.

Having said that, there are times when it might be inappropriate to shoot. Sometimes your moral compass points to a heading where photography would be an invasion of privacy. And I think a real professional, such as yourself, knows when that is.

The photojournalist is a professional photographer who has made a decision to be the eyes of the world. And if the PJ closes her eyes, that world will be a dark world.

#2 Comment By John7E On June 11, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

"The people ... were too healthy looking so I rejected them."

"So I rejected her."

This is one of the big problems with photojournalists (and I was one so I know). You folks are always looking for the worst, the ugliest, the most beautiful, the most extreme, rather than photographing a person, place or thing for what it is. As such, photojournalism becomes fiction.

Also, your repeated use of the word "rejected" carries a very powerful and ugly implication that you are in a superior position to the people you photograph. Given that unfortunately typical cocky attitude, you probably should be ashamed. Take a few lessons in humility.


#3 Comment By Scott Baradell On June 11, 2009 @ 1:20 pm


Michael is anything but "cocky." He was using the word "rejected" to drive home the larger point -- that there is a fine line between helping and exploiting the marginalized as a photojournalist. Only a caring (and humble) person would even recognize this as the moral conflict that it is.

#4 Comment By Paul Melcher On June 11, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

What gives the right ? Our curiosity for each other. I am sure that if you had shown them pictures of Americans at home ( i am assuming you are American), they would have looked, fascinated.
Not every images changes the world and it is not your problem. You report, we act. Or not. The responsibility of a photojournalist is to show the world how it is, not to make people act. And is far as choosing your subject, well, that is your prerogative. We want to see what you want to show us because it is your sensibility to events surrounding you that is the substance of your work, not everything that you see. It is what you decide to shoot that makes your images compelling. It is part of the process of reporting.
Like when you speak, you carefully pick the words you will use, photography is the same. You select the images that best describe what you want to explain. There is nothing wrong with that.
Finally, you question your role, and that is fine, because we should all do, all the time.

#5 Comment By Tony Blei On June 11, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

I disagree, John7E. Photojournalists aren't Looking for the worst, the ugliest, the most beautiful, the most extreme." A responsible photojournalist is looking for the BEST person to tell the story that needs to be told. And yes, sometimes the worst is the best.

I've never met Michael Coyne, but from looking at his pictures here and reading this blog, I can assure you that he is a very sensitive and responsible photojournalist.

To be incorrectly fixated on the word "reject" tells me that you missed the point of his essay and have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Photojournalism isn't for everyone, but it's clearly a profession for people such as Michael.

#6 Comment By Scott Baradell On June 11, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

Paul, Michael is actually an Aussie -- but I'm sure he won't be TOO offended 🙂

#7 Comment By Giovanni B. On June 11, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

Probably, we should not forget the words of Reza Deghati:

"This is the message that photographers should convey to everybody: 'Hey! Wake Up!'
The image that I have is that the rich countries in the world are like a big Titanic where everything is regulated inside. You have different rooms – First-Class, Second-Class – you have a place to sleep and everything is working. There is a fantastic chef and all kinds of restaurants, a concert hall, and entertainment, all in this boat. Everything is fine and people are having fun.
We, the photojournalists, are also living on this boat. Sometimes we jump out to go and see what is happening outside. What we find is that... My God, this boat is sailing in an ocean of fire and blood, everywhere. People are dying. Living in horrible conditions. Just holding onto some broken piece of wood with a family in the ocean, while the Titanic is just moving around them, sometimes even destroying them. So what we do is talk to these people and take some pictures, then we go back to the Titanic and we try to show our pictures, saying, 'Wait a minute! Stop! Stop! Look what's going on!' But the chef goes on serving the food and the passengers look at us and say 'give us a break – I'm eating my food. I'm opening the champagne.'
The reason why we are doing this is to save both of these [groups of] people – [those] down in the ocean of fire and blood and also the people on the Titanic. If the people on the Titanic don't care about those people suffering in the ocean, the Titanic will be hit. It will be hit. There are too many people in fire and blood all over the world. There are too many suffering."

Giovanni B.

#8 Comment By Scott Baradell On June 11, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

What a powerful analogy. Thanks, Giovanni.

#9 Comment By Stanley Leary On June 12, 2009 @ 6:42 am

I think there is a way to introduce yourself and ask permission to photograph. Usually after explaining why I am there I am invited in.

Working crime scenes and war I can see where we need to poke our cameras into situations. But for what you photographed, I would see this is people letting you into their lives.

#10 Comment By Tracey Smith On June 12, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

What makes a person worthy is not a judgment of the photojournalist or anyone else. What makes one worthy is the love that God has for each one of us, no matter our status in life. I do understand what the author meant when he used the word "rejected" also. What was rejected was not the precious soul, but the potential, captured image which would not have conveyed the story the photojournalist wanted to tell.

#11 Comment By David Lloyd On June 14, 2009 @ 3:08 am

As I read Michael's statement I too hoped he was using the word 'reject' as a form of self-criticism and to drive home his point to the readers. However, I suspect there is a larger issue here that needs to be addressed.

The role of the photojournalist/documentist is to share the stories to which they have been privileged to access. Unfortunately, some journalists enter into situations (conflict areas, etc) with a preconceived notions of the meanings to be found. Thus they look for specific stories that mirror their pre-existing (and often narrow) expectations and “ignore or reject” the multitude of other possibilities.

Unfortunately, complex issues are reduced to single dimensional stories that lack the complexities of social phenomena. This type of storytelling relies on iconographic imagery that sees the journalist rejecting or accepting one story over another. The reader is led to see the world in terms of right or wrong, victim or perpetrator, good or bad.

Photojournalists and documentists need to resist the temptation to represent the world in simple understandings and treat their readers as intelligent and compassionate people.

HIV should be represented by the breadth of responses and meanings ascribed to it. These would include the dislocated, the fractured, the dying, the healthy, the opportunist, etc.

Reflective and considered stories inform an audience, and an informed audience is capable of making decisions that change a world. Selective or censored stories misinform an audience and I fear the change which can (and has) occurred through this approach.

Telling stories carries an enormous responsibility. I wish you well Michael.

#12 Comment By Peter Phun On June 20, 2009 @ 10:00 am

As a former newspaper photographer, I can attest to this internal struggle which I also faced.

I'm by no means in the same calibre as some of the contributors here, but I do a story to share.

One of the pictures which I am most proud of is just a close up of smoke alarm with a burned down home in the background.

I was sent to cover a fatal fire where a young girl died. The fire marshal invited the media inside the home and gave them a tour of the little girl's room.

I went along but I didn't photograph the inside of the house partly because it was boring but also because I didn't feel it would tell the story beyond satisfy the voyeuristic nature of the readers.

The next day the cop reporter came up to me and told me the family granted him an interview because we didn't show the interior of his dead daughter's bedroom.

The picture is not memorable at all. It didn't win any awards. I never told my boss. It was just kept between the cop reporter and me.

#13 Comment By Marc On November 2, 2010 @ 7:35 am

"rejected them" thats well out of order, if your a photojurnalist you should be looking at both storys, sad and happy and show the differences that life isnt really that bad. And yes, show people and let people know that these victums have bad lifes, and we can try and help so they can be "healthy looking" and maybe happyer.

ohh yeah, and no photographer should be embaresed for what they do, if you enjoy it and its your job why be embaresed?