The Ethics of Documentary Photography

“In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it.”

– Susan Sontag (, 2014)

First and foremost, we looked at the aspect of what defines a documentary photographer. Is it true that all photographers are documentary photographers as the term was originally perceived? No, as we found that Karin Becker Ohrn defines documentary as having a goal beyond the production of fine print; a story beyond the image. Martha Rosler went on to question “would it be considered right to alter the truth in this story?”  (Wells, L. 2004 )Image First, we looked at “The home of a rebel sharpshooter, Gettysburg” taken by Alexander Gardener in 1863. During the American civil war, photography was not technologically advanced enough to capture the real time action, therefore they would have to photograph the aftermath. However, Gardener had moved the corpse of the rebel sharpshooter from its original position, as well as placing a rifle (not a sharpshooter’s equipment) upright besides the body. Although I can understand that Gardener had moved the body for a greater composition, and possibly for a more artistic approach, I still have to question whether what we’re seeing here is justified. Gardener did of course move the body from its original place, altering reality and the naturalness of the image, but overall I would say that the fact the sharpshooter is still dead, and still on the battlefield, still depicts the aftermath of the civil war for us thus Gardener’s documentary photography is justified. Image This photograph taken in 1945 is Joe Rosenthal’s Flag raising at Iwo Jima, a historical moment. However, this is not the original flag. After the original raising of the small dainty flag, the government ordered for a bigger flag to be sent out and raised, giving out a bigger message. This epic photograph is of course a great use of propaganda and a memorable and personal image for Americans; A great use of propaganda. Although the image is still at Iwo Jima, not staged, still with the war ongoing, it is not the decisive moment. A term Henri Cartier-Bresson coined defining the crucial scenes in our history. Overall this photograph shouldn’t be shunned, although in my eyes it’s considered a mimic of the actual decisive moment, it is still a very powerful, meaningful photograph which conveys the truth to the viewer. Image Altering the truth in photography by editing the original image has been happening since the early days of photography. It is well known that Stalin airbrushed his new found enemies out of his original photos. The commissar in this photograph was airbrushed out of the image after he had fallen out of favour with Stalin, mainly for personal a propaganda purposes. This attitude still happens in our present days. Not long ago, a reporter in Russia had some remarks of Vladmir Putin that did not run in his favour. For this, the reporter was cut and digitally erased from the television program. Overall I, I would consider censorship from reality to the public is unethical and should not be used/done. In terms of photos such as Rosenthal’s and Gardeners, I would consider these two images to be justified in what they’re trying to document and express, even though they’re slightly altered physically, they still depict the truth and dictate our history.


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