PhoJo: An intro to ethical & legal considerations

Photojournalists are witnesses and documenters of history, and journalistic photography is an important agent of social change.

South African Kevin Carter photographed a public execution, known as “necklacing” in the mid-1980s. He later said of his photographs: “I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures … then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

Eddie Adams’ and Nick Ut’s images questioned growing public unease with the actions of American and South Vietnamese troops in the Vietnam war. But Adams insisted that photographs should not be judged by their shocking or gruesome nature. Viewers should ask themselves, “How do you know you wouldn’t have pulled the trigger yourself?”

Photographers are journalists – they know the facts of each story they’re covering and recognise and translate the most newsworthy elements into one, striking image.

Ethical and legal issues faced by photojournalists


The same ethical considerations that apply to all journalists (MEAA code of ethics), apply to journalists making photographs. But in particular:

  • Intrusion into people’s privacy
  • Capturing, filing and publishing graphic or shocking images, e.g. the “falling man”
  • Setting photographs up, or not (e.g. removing items from news photos – how far do you go?) – journalistic manipulation of the story presented in a photograph e.g. NYT’s Edward Keating’s photo of the boy pointing a toy gun outside a grocery store near where the FBI had raided an Al Qaeda cell. The photographer has a role as a journalist/reporter. There must be truth in photographs
  • Manipulation of digital images

Foundations of ethical decision-making, in simple terms, as defined by ethicists:


Where the overriding consideration is “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”.

Assumes that photojournalism:

  • provides information critical to a democratic society
  • can show horror of war, the tragedy of an accident, the hardship of poverty

therefore it is right to take and publish these pictures


  1. John Harte of the Bakersfield Californian captured the moment that five-year-old Edward Romero’s body was shown to his family after having been recovered from a lake. Although managing editor Robert Bentley ultimately decided that the photo should run (in part because it would serve as a potential warning and help stem the high number of drownings that were taking place in the county), he later said that he regretted the decision.
  2. Similarly, the fire escape photo (from 1975) captured the moment that a fire escape collapsed sending 19-year-old Diana Bryant to her death (her 2-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones, survived). The photograph was taken by Stanley Forman and was published on the first page of the Boston Herald. In a 2005 interview with the BBC, Forman reflected on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Some claimed that Forman’s photograph helped establish stricter building codes for fire escapes.


Utilitarian principles are problematic where they clash with a competing ethical principle that defines some ethics as fixed e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (under ANY circumstances). This statement is absolute and inviolable, regardless of the benefits to society.

Some absolutists might say that people have a right to privacy, so capturing and publishing a photograph of a distraught family, although it might make others more cautious and even save lives, is unacceptable to an absolutist because of people’s right to privacy.

Do unto others

Another ethical cornerstone that may conflict with absolutism

Two considerations re the family photograph:

  • you might not take the photo or publish it because you can imagine being the parent and not wanting to have your photograph taken at such a moment, or
  • you may think of yourself as a grieving parent who wanted your child’s death to serve as a warning to others

Good guide to what’s ok (in law) and what’s not under NSW law:


The Long Fall: The Most Famous Photograph 9/11 Photograph No One Has Seen, by Brian Anderson, Vice


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