When does capturing images of the effects and destruction of war cross ethical boundaries? When, for instance, should a documentary photographer press the shutter? When should he or she step back, intervene, or console the subject? These were some of the questions posed to the audience at the fifth edition of the Xposure International Photography Festival on Friday at a seminar titled ‘The Ethics of Capturing the Suffering of Others’.
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British photographer Sohail Karmani, also a professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, led the audience in an interactive session, as he discussed the ethical complexities and moral
Dilemmas of such questions
Karmani asked the audience to visualise themselves in a war zone where they come across an elderly woman with tears streaming down her face, seated on a pile of rubble of what was probably once her home and the raw emotion of anguish, pain and suffering vividly seen in her eyes as the sun perfectly frames her face in a gentle glow. He then posed the question: “Do you turn your camera towards her to capture this moment which has all the visual elements of a powerful shot or would taking a photo of the distraught woman be deemed unethical?” While a few opined their first instinct would be to console the woman as they would not want to exploit a tragic situation, others believed that war photographers had a moral duty to document the realities of war and expose its horrors to hopefully trigger positive, remedial action.
The second scenario he placed was about being witness to a brutal, physical violence by an armed soldier against a civilian in a conflict zone. This time, most of the audience agreed that they would document the evidence of human rights abuse to bring its immorality to light. The dissenting voices felt it was their moral obligation as human beings to help the person in question before taking the photograph. Karmani said: “The purpose of this is not to present ethical guidelines to be a better human being, nor am I going to take a position. Instead, the intention is to foster a conversation in which we have an opportunity to think through, rationalise, and articulate our moral position.”
His images want to engage people with events
Back in 1986, Ron B. Wilson saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City as immovable north stars. When he saw them collapse right before his eyes on September 11, 2001, Ron experienced both shock and denial. He saw people of different ethnicities speak a common language – that of grief – and found frontline workers rush to the spot; firemen trying to rescue people, and store owners giving away essentials to the distraught. These displays of human strength struck a chord and armed with his camera, Ron began his journey 20 years ago. Talking about his experiences at the festival, Ron shared that the purpose behind his images was to trigger people to be more engaged with global events.
‘More lenswomen voices need to be heard’
Three women photojournalists spoke out on the need to elevate female voices in the industry at a discussion held at the Xposure International Photography Festival. “I have a female signature; it is the way I approach my subject,” said American photojournalist Paula Bronstein, who has been in the field for 35 years. “Just being female, there is a different societal standard that is expected of us – you have to always stand up and push yourself to do more,” said British-American Emma Francis, who has documented the stories of Ethiopian refugees in Kenya. Claire Thomas, a freelance photojournalist from Wales, UK, said: “Photojournalism is a hard industry to step into – irrespective of your gender. I try to focus on my work in this industry, not my work as a woman.”
Capturing conflict and conservation
Humans have caused irreparable damage to nature because of indiscriminate illegal wildlife trade. A seminar at the Xposure International Photography Festival turned the spotlight on the devastating environmental impact of the unacceptable practice.
Titled ‘Animosity – Documenting Human-Animal Conflict’, the session was led by Izzy Sasada, from Four Corners Films and Photography, who sifted through a compelling body of work developed by internationally acclaimed environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski.
Sasada urged the audience to go deeper into the matter to analyse the financial motivations behind illegal wildlife trade and the practice of animal cruelty.