A picture is worth a thousand words. This is a phrase we have all heard at least a thousand times, but sometimes we need to be reminded that a picture is more than just what meets the eye. Only a little over 100 years ago, people believed that everything they saw in photographs was true. As long as the photograph was taken where and when the caption says it was, it was generally thought to be accurate and, at times, even more reliable than the testimony of a human eye witness (Ritchin, 1985). This mindset is now few and far between in today’s society. Nothing – not even a smiling selfie – can be published without meeting extreme scrutiny from the receiving public.

Before the technology boom of the 2000s, and before the times of digital photography, images had a permanence and physicality (Bersak, 2006). Photographs were fixed on pieces of film that consisted of acetate coated in a chemical, light-sensitive emulsion containing silver halide crystals. When exposed to light, the crystals would create a latent image on the negative film strip, capturing contrast, details, and color – depending on what kind of film was being used. After shooting, these negatives would then need to be developed. During the darkroom photography process, photographers would need to carefully develop their film. This included making sure no light hit the strips, measuring out the exact amount of chemicals needed for the developing tank, and praying that no air bubbles or other slip-ups occurred throughout the laborious process. If the film was ruined, the perfect, unique shots that were captured would be lost forever.

Queen Victoria on her wedding day

A photograph was meant to be something that could be held, something to be considered “limited edition,” but as technology advanced, images began to serve a different purpose than just to document royalty or an opulent Victorian wedding. They began to tell stories. Smaller and lighter cameras contributed to documentation that the world had never seen before. Photos were being published as art, in magazines, and were shown on the news; adding extra verification (or so it was thought to be) to whatever was being communicated. It was from these beginnings that the concept of photojournalism was born.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

After erupting in the Depression Era of the 1930s, storytelling using the medium of photography/film is still the main device media sources use in order to get a message out to a large audience. One example of early influential photojournalism is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. In the black and white photo, a concerned mother furrows her brows while comforting her three children. The photo was taken during a tour when Lange’s employer, the Farm Security Administration, set her out to California in 1936. This project was created in an effort to raise awareness about the poverty American farmers faced during the Great Depression. This stark and emotional photo resonated within people across the United States as many saw themselves in her form. Documentary photography like this shed light on hardship without using shock factors like gore or violence. Here, simplicity and honesty in a real environment provided more valuable than embellished scenes in a studio.

As we can see, simple portraiture can communicate so much, but within the last forty years or so, photojournalism has become victim to an unusual circumstance. According to author Julianne Newton, “the line between fact and fiction, science and art, news and entertainment, information and advertising has become increasingly blurred” (2013). People, specifically those who worked for savvy businesses, learned how to use and manipulate imagery in order to create self-serving narratives. More often than not, marketing is the notorious “figure behind the curtain” that directs the manipulation of photographs because stunning, fantastical imagery is a key driver for sales (Mallonne, 2017). While it is still possible to tell truthful, authentic stories through visual images, we must realize that they must not be considered as objective truth but rather as supplementary, and intentional, additional communication. 

Portrait of WWII photographer Robert Capa

So how does photojournalism, and its value, still exist today? The answer to that question is simple, really. Photojournalism still exists today because it is unlike any other method of communication. Photojournalism yields the power to reveal actual truths and elicit genuine emotion quicker and more efficiently than written or spoken words. One does not need to know a diverse set of languages in order to interpret a photograph, instead, they just need working eyes and a good sense of humanity, morals, and emotional intelligence. Successful visual storytellers must be skilled in capturing moments. To capture a real moment requires a special kind of trust between the subject and photographer; the photographer must be the proverbial fly on the wall, watching and waiting for the moment to occur (Gitner, 2015). Sometimes those moments would be found in an intimate setting between mother and child. Sometimes those moments would be found in the midst of the battlegrounds during World War II. It was due to this dedication that photographers were deemed as recorders, rather than reporters, as if their points of view were as neutral as those of a machine (Newton, 2013). As all photographers are human, we know deep down that their point of view exists and could not be just belittled to “neutral.” Photographers and the media have long been shaping how photojournalism is served to the masses, but how has the well-equipped and highly opinionated public been making its own rules surrounding this form of visual storytelling?

The topic of journalism ethics has been heatedly debated over the last century by both the receiving public and those who distribute news. Is the media really a truthful source or is it a slanted marketing-driven beast waiting in the shadows to exploit whoever falls into its pit? Because photographers are usually on the front line to any developing story, the photographer’s ethical orientation must be more clearly defined than with the writers who can report over the telephone (Lester, 2015). A photographer must be careful when going to shoot scenes as the audience can see them as insensitive or morally wrong. Is it right to capture images of suffering people afflicted by injuries due to terrorism and not helping them? Is it okay to snap pictures of a murder victim’s grieving family during a trial and then publicizing their most emotional moments? Carrying a camera and capturing images comes with a unique responsibility that must not be swayed by money or fame. Many reporting institutions, like National Public Radio (NPR), instate journalism standards. The NPR Ethics Handbook states, “to secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public. Any personal or professional interests that conflict with that allegiance, whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility” (2019). While these standards help to enforce the distribution of verified content, it doesn’t always mean it will enforce ethical content.

Napalm Girl by Nick Ut

More often than not, photographers and the general public are on opposite sides of a philosophical wall (Lester, 2015). What might be considered as “personal taste” for some might fall underneath the heading of “ethics” to others. The subjects of violence, sex, and tragedy are great examples of this issue. For American culture, the Vietnam War presented challenges for both photographer-centric and institutional ethics (Bersak, 2006). As a hugely controversial event, the Vietnam War influenced pop culture and how war was documented and reported back home. There were very few restrictions put upon photographers, and the lack of censorship lead to the release of shocking photos. One of them being Nick Ut’s famous Pulitzer Prize-winning, Napalm Girl. In the photo we see crying children fleeing an area that had been attacked by a hazardous napalm bomb. One child, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, runs naked, covered in burns and screaming “too hot, too hot” (Stockton 2019). This photo and its brutal honesty in capturing the events of the war caused outrage. Many questioned the photographer’s choice to take this photo during this tragedy, while another large group felt that publishing a nude minor violated her human rights and was inappropriate for distribution. Although they might produce an ethical quandary, these kinds of pictures draw attention to people’s relationships, presenting the people they feature as complex individuals and not just one-dimensional victims (Dahmen, 2017).

National Geographic‘s first female Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg

While photojournalism strives to document moments from around the world, we must remember that a good portion of these modern photographers come from a privileged place. A photographer working for a news outlet usually fit a certain set of demographics, had a stable job, were respected by peers, and were often financially and physically assisted during their “business trips.” Because of this, photojournalism actually contributed to the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes and racist ideology in America for many years – presenting a tremendous ethics conversation. In a revolutionary article published just last year, National Geographic’s Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg describes how the magazine’s coverage throughout the 20th century was largely bigoted. Until the 1970s, the popular travel and nature magazine all but ignored American people of color, however, it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, happy hunters, noble savages – every type of cliché (Goldberg, 2018). 

Screen Shot 2019-10-19 at 2.42.04 PM
Portraits of Aboriginal Australians from the 1916 issue of National Geographic

In one publication from the early 1900s, Aboriginal Australians were called savages who “ranked lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” These photos and their racist rhetoric also contributed to the sexism and the fetishization of women of color still seen today. In many of the National Geographic’s published photos, native women were often shown topless. Although completely normal in their society, the lack of education and acceptance in American audiences interpreted these women as animals with no sense of prudence or as subservient sex objects. Intent, here, plays a huge factor. There are respectful ways to document culture, however, if someone wants to publish something because it makes them or their opposing culture look good – that can be considered discriminatory and hedonistic. Although there has been progress made regarding how media documents the lives of others, the effects of these photojournalistic wrongs can still be felt today.

Collage showing the modified National Geographic cover over the original photo

In modern visual storytelling, the greatest ethical issue in question is photo manipulation. Photo manipulation can contribute to the ethical quandaries previously discussed, but it also entirely crosses the line for most institutionalized codes of ethics. Most codes of ethics for photojournalists now insist that no news photograph should be staged, posed or recreated – however, the codes are upheld differently by various editors (Newton, 2013). Digital retouching tools, like Photoshop, have become ubiquitous and easier to use. As early as the 1980s, these tools were used to modify images in order to make them fit a photographer’s, editor’s, or publishing house’s vision. This dynamic, albeit somewhat insidious, fusion of written and visual journalism is planned sitting side by side with a visual journalist (Garcia, 2017). In (another) error of judgment, National Geographic published a magazine cover squishing the Pyramids of Giza so that two peaks could fit into the dimensions of the cover. This arrangement, although physically impossible, was probably deemed as visually pleasing due to the use of proximity and repetition (Bonner, 2014). Here, the want to create a stunning cover overshadowed imperfect reality in an effort to sell more magazines at the stand. 

Comparison showing the edited TIME magazine versus the unedited Newsweek photo

Another instance of intentional photo manipulation can be seen on the 1994 OJ Simpson TIME magazine cover. At the time, the OJ Simpson trial was one of the most controversial court cases televised across the country. On the TIME cover, we see Simpson, clean-shaven, wearing a white dress shirt and a black blazer. Surrounding him is a black fog that creates a feeling of claustrophobia and unease. The headline “An American Tragedy” is brazenly displayed in an aggressive red, matching the TIME branding. As this story was picked up by most news sources, many began to see that Simpson’s mugshot had been altered. When compared to the unedited Newsweek photo, one can clearly see that Simpson was deliberately edited with a vignette and filter that darkened his skin and the surrounding environment to evoke a dramatic, sinister tone (“Pictures that Lie”, 2011). 

Adnan Hajj’s photo of Lebanon (edited above, unedited below)

While some artistic modifications are harmless, ones like the above use subliminal messaging and persuasive design techniques, like the Gestalt theory, to unconsciously push the viewing audience into feeling a particular emotion or insert a certain biased thought into their mind. Gestalt, the German word for “form” or “shape” refers to Gestalt Psychology, a school of thought that attempts to explore how the human mind perceives things in whole forms, rather than their individual elements (Busche, 2019). Another device photographers use in photographs is the distinct use of color. While not a controversial issue on its own, edited colors can impact the way a scene is read (Cao, 2018). One example of this was in a 2006 photograph of the aftermath of Israeli warplanes in Lebanon. In post-production, photographer Adnan Hajj used Photoshop to exaggerate the bombing damage by cloning and darkening the smoke (Mallonnee, 2017). Hajj was immediately fired after these manipulations were uncovered. Clearly, the influence a picture can have is limitless – which is why modern society’s ability to create engaging photos is infringing on photojournalism’s territory.

Today, cameras are extremely commonplace with smartphones in nearly every person’s pocket. Smartphone cameras are used extensively to document night outs, selfies, and on occasion major news events, crimes, or police brutality. These “citizen photojournalists,” while they do serve a very unique purpose, are ignorantly unaware of the nuances of photojournalistic ethics – clicking regardless of consent or regard for others’ right to privacy. In many cases, after the picture is taken, that image is posted to social media in order to get a reaction or to spread awareness. Many major news sources have integrated this user-generated content into their reporting. But, like even professional photographers do, they might edit their images in the hopes that it will get them more attention via social media engagement. Even more concerning are the individuals who intentionally create and distribute falsified images – contributing to the already heated socio-political climate and the surplus of fake news. With technology evolving, it becomes even harder to determine the fakes from authentic images and videos.

Photojournalist Micheal Kamber

This brings us to our final question: are photojournalism ethics even important? The answer to that is yes, but with some caveats. Retired photojournalist Michael Kamber states, “People have to be able to believe, ‘I’m seeing this picture, this picture was vetted by a professional, it really happened, and it happened as I’m seeing it in front of me.’ Once you start making it permissible that editors and photographers can change things, you get to a point where nothing means anything anymore” (Mallonee, 2017). His statement is completely justified. On the issue of photo manipulation, photojournalists should not use artistic ideologies or digital tools to muddle the truth. This is paramount. We as a society should be pushing for more honest and credible content. It is important, though, to recognize that journalism is not the same thing as marketing. Marketing is solely a device used for selling goods and services, and to do that, there will always be editing, exaggerations and a team trying to make sure their ad is received in a very specific way. The more we allow it to become permissible for photojournalists and media sources to allow marketing principles to guide their coverage, the more the blame falls on us for letting them get away with it.

Regarding the argument of “personal taste” versus “ethics,” this is something that is going to constantly evolve. In his doctoral dissertation, Daniel Bersak argues that technology will keep being the predominant influence in evolving people’s ethical systems (2006). As more people become exposed to violence, sex, drugs, tragedy and other ethical concerns at younger ages, the way we view these topics evolves. With time, audiences become more and more desensitized, and viewing these types of imagery will become normal. It is a conflicting debate, but when it comes down to it a person’s singular perspective and moral compass guide their response to controversial photojournalistic photographs. We cannot change the fact that photos will continue to be taken and used to promote a certain viewpoint. We cannot change the fact that photojournalism has contributed to stereotypes and sexist/racist rhetoric. We cannot change the fact that people will never align on what is in “good taste” or what should be censored. What we can change is how we consume all of the stimuli we see. Recognize that seeing the hard and ugly truth is better than being lied to. Recognize falsities and demand that our media do better. Be an advocate. Be a friend. But most importantly recognize that now you have the power to help shape how others see the world. 


Bersak, D. R. (2006). Ethics in photojournalism: past, present, and future (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Bonner, C. (2014, September 15). Using Gestalt Principles for Natural Interactions. Retrieved from https://thoughtbot.com/blog/gestalt-principles

Busche, L. (2019, May 15). Simplicity, symmetry and more: Gestalt theory and the design principles it gave birth to. Retrieved from https://www.canva.com/learn/gestalt-theory/

Cao, J. (2018, June 11). Web design color theory: how to create the right emotions with color in web design. Retrieved from https://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/07/how-to-create-the-right-emotions-with-color-in-web-design/

Dahmen, N. (2017, December 2). How to Do Better Visual Journalism for Solutions Stories. Retrieved from http://mediashift.org/2017/11/visually-reporting-solutions-stories-newsrooms-classrooms/

Garcia, M. R. (2017, January 19). Digital storytelling, Part One: The fusion of writing/editing/design. Retrieved from https://www.garciamedia.com/blog/digital_storytelling_part_one_the_fusion_of_writing_editing_design/

Gitner, S. (2015). Multimedia storytelling for digital communicators in a multiplatform world. New York: Routledge.

Goldberg, S. (2018, March 12). For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/#close.

Lester, P. M. (2015). Photojournalism: An ethical approach. Routledge.

Mallonee, L. (2017, November 17). Infamously Altered Photos, Before and After Their Edits. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/07/bronx-documentary-center-infamously-altered-photos-edits/

Newton, J. (2013). The burden of visual truth: The role of photojournalism in mediating reality. Routledge.

Pictures that Lie. (2011, May 12). Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/pictures/pictures-that-lie-photos/24/

Ritchin, F. (1985). The Future of Photojournalism. Aperture, (100), 42-50. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/stable/24472005.

Stockton, R. (2019, September 23). The Widely Misunderstood Story Behind The Iconic Image Of “Napalm Girl”. Retrieved from https://allthatsinteresting.com/napalm-girl.

These are the standards of our journalism. (2019, February 11). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/ethics


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