Are your photographs telling the truth?

Are your photographs telling the truth?

Is this priest upset or just pensive? What’s his real story?

Recently I read Fernando Gros’ blog post titled, “Telling A Story – Choosing A Story” about his effort to choose what the story of Thaipusam was about. Fernando made some excellent points, the strongest one being that the workshop was not about the “poking” of participants, it was about culture and religion, faith and man’s relationship to god. I made a comment on his post that started me thinking. I agreed, that Thaipusam was not about this spectacular ritual of poking needles through one’s cheeks and that it was about this culture’s relationship with each other and with god. What I started ruminating on was how easily this can be misunderstood, reinterpreted and presented in a way that could be detrimental for the Tamil culture of Southeast Asia.

Those of us that like to tell visual stories using our cameras always have a point of view. The question is whether it is a legitimate point that we can defend. As Fernando writes, there were plenty of people taking pictures of just the piercing of flesh – and nothing else. The fact is, to them that is what this festival was about. They didn’t know it was about thankfulness, fulfillment of vows, about worship and more. They didn’t know, because they didn’t ask. Most people were so taken by the visual spectacle that they ignored the back story.

Most of us are not journalists. We haven’t been trained in the ethics of journalism or of photojournalism for that matter. So the question can be asked, do we have a responsibility for fairness? My opinion is, simply because we’re human we have a responsibility for fairness. If we don’t seek out the truth – the factual story, then what we are left with is first impressions and feelings and we all know that first impressions and feelings can be wrong.

A few years back I wrote a blog post about a book I had read by Thomas Friedman called, “The World Is Flat“. In this book he talks about the democratization of virtually everything. How through the Internet and other things the world is becoming flat, in other words, everything is equal. It is true, that photography has in fact been democratized. Everyone has a camera. Now, I’m not one of these people that moan over this and say how terrible it is that everyone has a camera and everyone is calling themselves a photographer. Frankly, I couldn’t care less what people call themselves. But the fact that everyone has a camera creates some unique issues. Let me put it to you this way, what would happen if everyone had a gun. There are people that would be very responsible with it. They would lock it up at night to keep it away from their children. They might use it for only hunting or self-defense. They would never think about shooting another person. I know this is also an extreme example, but now let me draw the analogy with photography. Everyone has a camera, fine. But, does everyone know how to be responsible with it. What pictures are they taking? Are these pictures edifying of the people they taking photos of? Or are they sensational and embarrassing? I have a rule of thumb that I live by in my photography. It goes something like this, I never take a picture that I feel I could not show to the subject after I’ve taken it. The point being, if that person wouldn’t be comfortable with the photograph than I shouldn’t be comfortable taking it.

Yes photography has been democratized. I can live with that. I can live with everyone calling himself a photographer even though frankly, there are still a limited amount of people that can make a really good photograph. But one thing that I am concerned about is the responsibility that I feel is often overlooked when people use their cameras. We’ve said it here on this blog may times, the camera does in fact lie. The fact is, so do photographers and when you put a photographer who lies along with a camera that lies well, you get a string of images that lie.

I’m not sure what to do about all this. I don’t really have answers, just questions. I don’t think we can legislate how people use their cameras, that would be just silly. I don’t think we can expect much from people who in fact don’t care. But I know that there are many of you who do care. If you’re reading this blog chances are you are one of them. Maybe there is a way around this after all. What if those of you who do care invest in another photographer. Why not be a mentor? Take someone who has an interest in visual storytelling and spend time with them and invest in their talent and storytelling. Frankly, this may be the only solution. Spread the word with me that people need to be considerate in their photography. Will you teach people to photograph the best of people, unless in fact, the story is about the worst of people? I’m not saying all we do is photograph the good. The world is full of bad that needs to be photographed. But let’s make sure the story we tell his true, whether good or bad. By the way, the priest above? He was just bored.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Martin Aggerholm

    Great post.
    Here’s how I look at it… Photography is an art form and so there are no rules. If someone wanted to create, let’s say a fine art series of Thaipusam participants poking each other with needles, then that would be artistic expression. I think it may all come down to how you choose to present your photographs to your audience. If you intend to tell a story about Thaipusam as a cultural event itself, and you present it to your audience as such (whether you publish it on your blog or in a newspaper) then we are talking about documentary and photojournalism (regardless of whether the photographer have ever received any training as a journalist) and the photographer should definitely strive to tell the whole story.

    As you very well point out Matt, the truth are seldom told through first impressions. There is usually more to a story than what meets the eye, and it will often require some digging – like talking to people. Otherwise you just pass on your assumptions of your subject and the event to the readers of your photographs.

    • Matt Brandon

      Martin, I think you make a common argument that photography is art and as such “to each his own”. I am just not sure I buy it. A lot of artist have painted hateful things an claimed art to justify it. It is a tough question and one that will never be fully answered.

      • Fernando Gros

        I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea that “Photography is an art form and so there are no rules.”  If we mean formal rules, like composition “rules,” then OK.  But, to extend that to saying art has no moral obligations doesn’t seem right.

        Consider this; what if the creation of an art form required the death of a human? We would likely say that art form was unacceptable.  An extreme example for sure.  But, let’s wind it back; what about art that requires human suffering, or the coercion of unwilling participants.  There’s a line there, however vague it might seem, where moral obligations outweigh art for art’s sake.

        But, regardless of that, there’s a difference between art I might create in a studio (I’m not an artist, but go with me on this) and art I try to create on the street by “using” other people – especially people who haven’t volunteered to be part of my art project.

        I do agree with Martin that a distinction ought to be made between the goals of an “artist” (which I am not) and the goals of a documentarian (which I kind of am).  But, I’m still inclined to see a moral obligation on the artist when they are using public life for their art.

        Anyway, thank you for linking to my blog.  I’m humbled to me mentioned on your site Matt.

        • Martin Aggerholm

          Tough question indeed Matt. I can see that there are several ways to look at the term “no rules in photography”. What I meant by this was formal rules. We should of course always keep in mind our moral obligations. These are rules that apply to us all as human beings as far as I’m concerned. I guess one might call it “showing respect”.

          But, like I said, if a photographer presents his work as documentary other obligations come into play as well. They are perfectly outlined here:

          But I guess you’re right Matt… we probably can’t expect much from people who in fact don’t care, and the only way to reach those people may be simply by teaching and talking about these matters.

  2. Lee Desmond

    I agree with your take on being ethical with our cameras, and I love what you said here: “…simply because we’re human we have a responsibility for fairness. If we don’t seek out the truth – the factual story, then what we are left with is first impressions and feelings and we all know that first impressions and feelings can be wrong.” Excellent points. I also really like the idea of mentoring someone and helping to teach these important principles. 
    I like this definition of art: “Skilled craftsmanship that depicts God’s truth and beauty.” That doesn’t at all mean that one has to be a Christian to be an artist. There is great art and great literature, etc., that points to Truth, often with the artist not even realizing it.Good stuff!

  3. Jack

    Excellent post Matt. 

  4. keithtalley

    I’ll throw a little wrench in this topic.  I basically agree with you Matt, and, with the overall premise of edifying the people in a photograph, or just with basic responsibility that comes with photography. 

    However, pictures, such as Huynh Cong Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of that little girl running naked in the streets of Vietnam, during the war, are iconic now.  I can promise you that this was a very degrading, distastful photograph, and that he didn’t ask her permission to take it.  Now, this is, photo-jouralism of a war, but so what.  He is still snapping away without any regard for people or their feelings.  Right or Wrong?  He did bring her to the hospital though, because he did care for people, if anyone didn’t know that.  And it was spread throughout the world for someone else’s benifit (AP), not to edify the little girl.  So, was the over all goal of informing the world of this war a justifiable reason for such an image?

    We have both taken pictures of people without their permission, and so have most people.
    What we do with those photographs reflects on who we are as individual photographers.

    One of the problems is, that we all have our own unique sense of responsibility.  You might care less, and I might care too much, about what others might think and therefore, we are going to have a million different viewpoints on this subject. 

    But, I would guess anyone reading this blog would be on the side of being responsible with how we take and display photographs.  I hope.

  5. Matt Brandon

    I hope this works. FB comments on my blog?

    • Ch'ng Shi P'ng

      think FB is temporary abnornal since it is changing everybody's account…posts are showing late on the walls…

    • Ch'ng Shi P'ng

      finished reading, agreed and quite a few others have voiced in several forums, that not just Thaipusam, but almost all events have the same issues. too many people just want to take photos and consideration to the subject/object or even other fellow photographers are none of their business, they literally make the event into a war zone…


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