The Photographer's Presence

As I've been working for The Sun News, I've been thinking more and more about ethics. And with that thinking, I've realized that the line between ethical practices and unethical practices is thinner than ever.

Obviously, there have been a lot of controversies over the ethics of Photoshop, especially with the new features in CS5. However, my editor Matt Frye has brought up more questions that I have never considered — or been asked.

Frye is one of the most hardcore photographers I know when it comes to ethics. I've had a lot of ethical debates in classes, but most of them only regard situations such as how journalists should not eat at events they are covering, report on organizations in which they actively participate, and you know, good ol' checkbook journalism.

When looking at my take of a nature class for young children the other day, though, he was flipping through a two similar images he liked. He stopped at the photo above and asked, "Are these children leaning back because you are in the way?"

I was confused, but thought about it for a second and replied no, as the object they were looking at should have been above my head from their perspective. What did that have to do with the picture, however?

As photojournalists, we are, ideally, are supposed to go into a situation and document it as it is happening — but as it is happening, sans photographer. Do not move objects because they are in your way, do not chose pictures of people who are looking at you, do not arrange people so they are more visually appealing, or even go as far as change the lighting to accommodate you. This can be taken to different degrees, but in this situation, it was supposed to be as if I did not even exist — as if the picture had been snapped by an invisible person with an invisible camera who talked to no one.

Is this possible? Realistically, no. Children are increasingly hard because they are so inquisitive — "Who is this person taking my picture?" they wonder. Some children will luckily lose interest minutes after discovering you, and some will continue to investigate, and maybe even ask to play with your camera.

Adults are smarter still. Some will try to pose shots or change behaviors to please you, to make a better picture. But some will ignore you, although they know you are still there. They may not acknowledge your presence, but conversations will not reflect normal conversations that may have been discussed if a journalist wasn't in the elephant in the room.

I was also faced with another odd situation when going into an environmental portrait setting the other day. I went to the house of Lori and Roy Thomas, avid collectors of rocks, salt and pepper shakers, bells, shoes and plates. The couple was wonderful and eager to show me their collections of things. As Roy went around the house, he would tell me the history of certain objects. I snapped a few pictures of him talking or pointing at things and Frye ultimately chose one of him directing his walking stick to a few rocks in his rock garden.

What was wrong with this (picture below)? Roy would not have been in his rock garden if I had not been there. The heat index was well into the 100's that day, so I'm sure Roy would have much rather been inside, drinking his wife's raspberry lemonade and yelling at his yappy dog, Kris Kringle.

But Frye picked the picture. The moment had happened, but only because I was there. If Roy had even ventured into his rock garden that day, sans Katie Currid, he probably wouldn't have pointed at particular rocks, explaining the differences between igneous and metamorphic formations. So what to do?

Frye instructed me to write a caption, but say that I was there. What? I was perplexed. Writing in the first person had been beaten out of me since high school journalism and I didn't even know if I could write something like that. But it wasn't quite like that. It was still third person, but I was in it:

Collector Roy Thomas gestures to his rock collection as he explains their different formations to a Smithville Herald photographer Wednesday, July 20 at his home. Roy and his wife, Linda, collect a multitude of items, such as rocks, salt and pepper shakers, bells and chickens.

I was in the caption. I changed the moment, so I needed to be transparent. The picture wasn't a typically environmental portrait — it wasn't obvious that the picture was posed. The audience needed to know.

Every journalists yearns for the power to be invisible. Not Clay-Aiken-creepy invisible, but simply unnoticed and overlooked. Because reporters will have to be visible, and thus the bane of every city council meeting, public gathering or simple home tour, we must try our best to leave a situation untainted at all costs.

But, if this is impossible, at least be honest about it.

Photographs are copyright © Katie Currid, 2010, and may not be distributed or reproduced without permission.