The Emergence of Photojournalism Ethics

The manipulation and staging of news photographs has not always been a question of ethics. In the early days of photojournalism, it was often a question of technological limitations. Photojournalism as we know it today –- candid, “life as it is” photography –- was difficult if not impossible to achieve before the emergence of innovations like the flash bulb, electronic flash and Leica camera in the 1920s and 30s.

Beyond the technology, explains Dennis Dunleavy — associate professor of communications at Southern Oregon University and author of The Big Picture blog — the concept of manipulation, in all its forms, had been inherent to photography from its beginnings.

“Historically, photography has always been about manipulation,” Dunleavy says. “Even the smile is a form of manipulation, because it may mask the true feelings of the subject.”

“Pre-Ethics” Photojournalism

The New York Times began publishing photos in 1896, and by the early 20th century newspapers across the country were adding photos to their pages. Generally these were posed or staged photographs –- often trumpeted as the “world’s first” photograph of various events, locations or phenomena. While more candid shots were sought after by the public -– the 1898 paparazzi shots of German Chancellor Bismarck on his deathbed created a sensation –- they appeared rarely.

Lacking the technology necessary to create the kind of compelling images the public craved, some newspaper editors got creative. Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of the New York Graphic, the New York City tabloid that launched the careers of Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, invented a photographic process that resulted in the “composograph.” Composographs, as described by Bob Stepno, were “startling front page images created in the art department by cutting and pasting the faces of celebrities onto the bodies of often scantily-clad models posed to illustrate some real-life scene where a camera simply couldn’t go (especially with the flash powder cameramen used in those days).”

MacFadden’s first composograph appeared in 1925, during the infamous divorce trial of Alice Rhinelander, in which the woman’s attorney had her strip to the waist in front of the court (to demonstrate that her white husband should have known she was African-American when they wed). As Ken Kobre writes of the creation in his textbook, Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach,

Harry Grogin, The Graphic’s assistant art director … began tearing up photographs of Alice, of the judge, of opposing counsel, of the stolid Rhinelander, of Alice’s mother, of Rhinelander’s lordly father. Then he put them through a process by which they would come out in proper proportion. Meanwhile, Grogin sent for an actress whom he posed as he imagined Alice Rhinelander would have stood before the lawyers and the judge. For the photo, the art director had the actress wear as little as possible.

Grogin used twenty separate photos to arrive at the one famous shot, but for the Graphic, it was well worth the effort. The picture was believable. You feel you are looking in on the judge’s chambers. With the birth of The Graphic composograph,The Graphic’s circulation rose from 60,000 to several hundred thousand after that issue.

Kobre says that while industry publications like Editor and Publisher blasted the “shocking news-picture,” the criticism was reserved for the offense of putting a nearly nude woman on the newspaper’s front page -– not for the photographic manipulation itself.

Toward a Golden Age

In the first decades of the 20th century, a movement emerged to professionalize newspapers to enhance their authority and credibility with the public. Part of this movement was promotion of the doctrine of objectivity, and the ideal that journalists could be depended on to be independent observers, delivering “just the facts.”

This became orthodoxy by the 1930s -– about the same time that technological innovations made possible a more candid, spontaneous brand of photojournalism. The combination of new journalistic standards and the technology necessary to achieve them visually gave birth to an era commonly known as the “golden age of photojournalism,” from the 1930s to the 1950s.

This is where Life Magazine –- as well as the Black Star photographic agency -– enter our story. Before Life began publishing in 1936, newspapers had dominated the creation and dissemination of photojournalism in the United States. Photography was seen as subordinate to text, designed to support and illustrate the work of the writers.

Life turned this formula on its head, bringing a new style of photojournalism from Weimar-era Germany that demonstrated how images could tell stories in ways that words simply couldn’t. In these pictures, as described in the book Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism,

People -– prominent figures as well as the unknown flower seller –- appeared in photographs of the time as both natural and spontaneous. The photographers staged nothing and gave the subjects of their curiosity no chance of posing … Those who saw the photographs thought they were actually present.

German photojournalism came to the United States with the help of Jewish émigrés fleeing the Nazi regime. Three of these émigrés founded the Black Star photographic agency, which brought Life some of its most famous photographers, including Robert Capa. Life was the country’s first all-photography news magazine and would dominate the periodical market from its introduction through the 1960s.

By World War II, the influence of photojournalism had grown dramatically — and the public’s expectations of photojournalists had grown as well. News photographers were now expected to capture truth -– and only truth — with their images.

Iwo Jima: An Early Ethics Controversy

The most famous single image of the war, in fact, was embroiled in a controversy that would hardly have been imaginable two decades earlier. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima was an immediate sensation -– appearing on the front pages of Sunday newspapers nationwide on Feb. 25, 1945.

Soon after, however, a Time-Life correspondent accused Rosenthal of staging the photo, and Time Magazine’s radio show reported that Rosenthal arrived too late for the shot and “could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” Time later retracted the story, but public doubt lingered for decades.

As Daniel Bersak points out in “Ethics in Photojournalism: Past, Present and Future,” his MIT masters thesis, the public likely would not have cared whether or not Rosenthal’s photo were staged in the 1920s.

“In decades previous, there would have been no ethical problem either way — had Rosenthal posed the picture or had he not, nobody would have protested,” Bersak writes.

Now that photojournalism had emerged as such an important force in news reporting, however, the question provoked a major ethical controversy. The year after Rosenthal’s photo, the National Press Photographers Association was formed; today, it remains the most influential arbiter on ethical issues in photojournalism.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Black Star’s new e-book, “Photojournalism, Technology and Ethics: What’s Right and Wrong Today?” Download the free e-book here.

2 Responses to “The Emergence of Photojournalism Ethics”

  1. I found this article to be helpful, This article gave me tips on my thesis which is about photography's ethics, thanks Ms, Anh.

  2. I found this article to be most helpful. I'm doing an assignment on ethics, period 1910-1935. A thousand thank you's for sharing.

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