I’ve covered protests in my time as a photojournalist and photojournalism educator, and there are always a chorus of conspiracy theorists postulating that by posting photos that show protestors’ faces, you’re setting them up to later be hunted down and killed and/or imprisoned. The thing is, a leaked phone call on Monday of President Donald Trump talking to the nation’s governors has all but confirmed that this is happening, or at least that the ostensible leader of the U.S. government wants this to happen.
And so maybe it’s time for us photojournalists to change our tune. Sort of.
Names and faces give photos power. If people are tiny ants in a photo, it’s harder to convey visceral emotion in the moment. Think back to the Kent State shootings, where an anguished Marry Ann Vecchio screams over the body of a student killed by the Ohio National Guard, or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl (her name is Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt) photo from the Vietnam War or more recently Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of protester Ieshia Evans being arrested in Baton Rouge protesting the death of Alton Sterling in 2016.
We know who the people are in these photos, and what the story is behind each photo. We connect with the photos on an emotional level, whether it’s feeling the anguish of someone who just witnessed a murder, the pain of the young girl who was hit in a napalm attack or the look of calm on Evans’ face even as she knows she is being arrested. It is 100% important to have faces in a photo. But it’s equally as important to have names, and here’s where the calls to not show faces may have some merit - and what can be done to create compelling photojournalism while also maintaining safety from a government determined to transform the United States into a surveillance state.
If you’re going to have a face in a photo, have a name. Having a name means you’ve talked to the person and are using the photo with their full knowledge of that fact and the consequences that may or may not follow.
The “Journalism” in Photojournalism
One of the things that saddens me to see in protest coverage is a photojournalist that only commits to the “photo” part of the job title. It’s something you’re still seeing in protest coverage even today, from photographers and organizations I’ve written about before. Protests are often fast moving, yes, and many will argue that you can’t get the names of everyone all the time. That’s true. But you can get the names of a lot of people a lot of time, it just takes patience.
In the middle of a heated confrontation with police, it’s difficult, if not impossible to get names. But the people protesting aren’t only there for the five minutes of heated confrontation that you happened to photograph. People stay in a general area for a while at many protests, sometimes for hours after the action ends. If the protest is for a righteous cause — such as black lives being important, or economic injustice, for instance — there’s a good chance the people there are friendly and will not mind if you walk up, identify yourself as a journalist, and ask for a name. Many want their story to be told, though I can see instances where that might not happen, of course, such as at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Rare has it been for me to use a photo that I didn’t have a name for in a protest. In the rare instance I used a photo without a name, it’s because the action being depicted and showing what happened are the most important considerations. I’m always keeping an eye on people I’ve photographed, waiting for the right moment to walk up and ask for a name and some background info.
These are journalistic rules drilled into every intro-level photography student, but are thrown out when it becomes inconvenient or it is perceived to be impractical to do so.
Are There Formal Rules?
There’s no license or certification needed to be a journalist, but there are codes that proscribe best practices and acceptable behavior. The Society of Professional Journalists has this to say about this particular situation:
– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
– Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
Trump’s phone call with governors demonstrates why it’s more important than ever to do the work of getting names and talking to sources in your photos. It’s the “don’t be an asshole” rule of journalism. With the president’s inclination to identify, track and arrest people for exercising the constitutional right to protest, journalists should now seriously weigh the pros and the cons of posting a photo where a protestor they have not talked to can be identified.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember photojournalists put their lives on the line right next to protestors to create photos that impact the public’s perception of an event. Just check out how close Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times came to being hit in the face with a rubber bullet in the Tweet below:
Being photographed at a protest amplifies the message a protestor is trying to send. But if photojournalists want to be good citizens of the community they are covering, they should also make every effort to identify and talk to the people who appear in their photographs.
In these uncertain times, a person’s life could depend on it.
Lead image by Daniel Passapera, used with permission.