The fallout from the recent election has been tantamount to a natural disaster and shows no signs of slowing down quite yet. To say that Donald Trump has had a mixed reception would be somewhat of an understatement, but as a positive person -- whose vote didn't see them on the winning side -- one might feel compelled to initiate Operation Silver Lining. In the face of adversity there is usually one opportunity for the (hardened) photographer: journalistic coverage of events.
In 2011, rather abruptly and without as obvious a causal event, London was thrust in to riots. Seeing large scale unrest is unsettling to say the least but there was an opportunity for a photographer to capture and record the chaos. Although it was a large step out of any remnants of a comfort zone, the photographs taken felt significant and useful. I received responses to my images that could be categorized into three; a nod of approval for risking my welfare and camera gear to capture the events, a shake of the head for risking my welfare and camera gear, and finally a glare of disgust for an earful for "benefiting off of the misery of others." I merged the first two reactions in to a hybrid with essentially a single driving sentiment: acknowledgement of risk for the "cause." I then completely disregarded the third stance. Well, I say completely disregarded, I have internalized the comment ever since.
Was this profiteering on my part? I went out with the sole intention of capturing the chaos in what could be a historic event; my motivations were not monetary. However, I did get approached by media outlets and I did sell images of the riots to them. At the time I hadn't entertained the idea of this act being remotely deplorable but rather recompense for the risks I took. I am a photographer and we photographers look to capture the interesting, the important, and the beautiful, and singular events -- including tragic ones, even especially tragic ones -- offer a wealth of such opportunities. One might name any number of important historical events and often a matching photograph is immediately summoned to the mind's eye; Tank Man, Vulture Girl, Napalm Girl, and so on. The intrinsic moral discussion of these images is well-trodden ground, particularly of Vulture Girl which arguably contributed to bringing about the consequent tragedy of Kevin Carter's suicide. Despite the skepticism, I'd always felt strongly that a service was being provided and it was and is an important one. I have read and watched as much material on the subject as I can and the personal suffering and change -- particularly in war photographers like Don McCullin -- is comparable ot that of a soldier.
There is one truth that perhaps underpins all others in the "pro" column: the photographs of major events are information and important information at that. The written word will never do justice to the magnitude of such events and as long as the images are created honestly, they have great value. Perhaps "created honestly" requires unpacking a little. While I'd support the recording of current affairs by photographers, there is an unspoken responsibility to reporting the circumstances accurately as one might with words. Hyperbole isn't a concept exclusive to language and disingenuous reportage photography -- that is, photographs created to mislead viewers about the severity of the situation (etc.) -- is just as dangerous as written or spoken exaggeration of the facts.
The capturing of major events is an important (albeit morally complex) task, but please, if you choose to do so, take care and prioritize helping people in need where possible!
What are your views on photographing war and major events?
Images of the Anti-Trump Riots 2016 in Portland, Oregon courtesy of Andrei Gorbatiuc. More images of the riots can be seen here.