Photojournalists Aren’t Always in Lockstep With What They Photograph

Photojournalists Aren’t Always in Lockstep With What They Photograph

There was an interaction I had at the bagel store on Martin Luther King Day, when I went to photograph a pro-Palestine rally in New York City, that most accurately captures my often conflicted view about what’s happening these days in front of my lens as a photojournalist.

The lady at the bagel store asked me if I was Muslim, because she had seen me occasionally order bacon on my sandwiches. I replied that I was “Mus-lish” - I’ve read the Qur’an. I believe its message. But I do not feel the need to follow rigid prescriptions such as praying daily or avoiding pork. She replied: “then you are not Muslim.” No room for moderate Muslims in the bagel store, I suppose.

It’s not unlike how I, and perhaps many photojournalists of color and otherwise, feel at these rallies. And there are times I can't tell if it's because I've changed, the world has changed, or because photojournalism has changed.

There were moments that made me feel profoundly uncomfortable at the rally, led by Within Our Lifetime. Calling for a ceasefire isn’t antisemitic or wrong. But at these protests, many demonstrators went beyond. Police were equated with “fascists” and “KKK.” Organizers told attendees to never talk to or trust police. Others called for the complete elimination of Israel. There seemed to be no room for people who don’t think all cops are bad or that Israel also has a right to exist in peace, but perhaps should stop its current campaign of bombing and attacks. I was moved to bear witness to these pro-Palestine protests because the children being most affected by airstrikes and bombings look like my own. I am a brown, Muslim American. How could I not feel anything?

But on Monday, I reached a point where I put down my camera. As the group of protestors reached Memorial Sloane Kettering, they stopped to single out the hospital as “complicit” in genocide. Several protestors tore down posters of kidnapped Israelis on lampposts outside the hospital.

Taking a photo of something doesn't imply supporting it.

The people inside the hospital that were the targets of protestors on Monday were the same people who saved my dad’s life after he was diagnosed with cancer.

What’s the end goal of all of this? There is an important message in calling for a ceasefire, but it’s one that’s being drowned out in nonsense. Much like in the bagel store, there’s no room for any moderate viewpoints at these rallies.

When Did It Change?

Photojournalists are often associated with the causes they cover. They are trained to cover topics with a certain amount of objectivity. As a professor, I have the luxury of choosing what events I cover with my photojournalism students, but that's not always the case if one works for a news organization. That's pretty easy to do when you're covering car accidents for food festivals or PETA protests. It's something different entirely when you're covering something that affects the community you're covering.

A Black Lives Matter protest in my hometown in June 2020.

For me, that was 2020, right after the murder of George Floyd. I started out as I've covered anything in photography, with the cold remove of a photojournalist. But there's something about seeing the protestors walk right past your old high school calling for racial justice. A high school where a social studies teacher told me that with a name like mine, I should be driving a taxi. If I had protested when that happened 25 years ago, would these high school students leading the protests today need to protest? Maybe not.

But photojournalists aren’t immune to the mental health toll of covering difficult and complex topics. I went to a few more of these protests to document, some of them again in my hometown. The racism I saw on display from people who lived in the community I grew up in pushed me to break my role and offer commentary on the subject.

When I've written about diversity issues, I've been told to stay out of politics. When I write about photography and leave the politics out of it, people read the politics into my images. I've been called a terrorist/terrorist supporter more times in my journalism career than I can count. Once, a reader of the newspaper I worked at wrote me to suggest that I should go back to India and walk in the streets with the cows, with a bell around my neck. This was after writing a column about airport security.

The point is this: photojournalists are humans, too. There's no such thing as objectivity, and because you don't agree with the content of their photos, it doesn't necessarily mean that they 100% agree with it too. There are shades of gray, something that many viewers, and the lady in the bagel store, don't understand.

The photos are history, and the things happening in them are important. Without photojournalists there to cover it, risking their own mental and physical health to do it, you'd never know — nor have the space underneath to offer an opinion.
Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I don’t have much to add here, except to say thank you for writing this and for sharing your experiences and valuable perspective. I hope this spawns some respectful and healthy discussion, but it’s the internet so who knows.

Anyway, it beats another article about the 7 mistakes I’m making as a landscape photographer.

"Anyway, it beats another article about the 7 mistakes I’m making as a landscape photographer."
lol. thank you for mentioning the worst thing about this website.

Thank you for the article!

It's important to acknowledge the complexities surrounding the motivations of photojournalists, especially when they are covering significant and sensitive issues such as the Israel/Palestine conflict, refugee crises, or wars in foreign countries. While many photojournalists are genuinely passionate about these subjects, there appears to be a trend where some professionals may be more influenced by the global spotlight on certain issues. This is evident when we see an increase in their engagement and postings on social media correlating with the rising public interest in these topics, despite these issues being longstanding.

This observation is not to discredit the entire community of photojournalists, many of whom are deeply committed to their work and the causes they cover. However, it raises a valid question about the sincerity and timing of the interest shown by some in the field. It's important for the integrity of photojournalism that we reflect on these practices and strive for authenticity in how we document and engage with critical global issues.

Very nice balanced and sane article.

Many a good fight has gotten coopted into something well right or left of the original intent and many people have gotten crushed in the court of public opinion as a result of other people using apparent mind reading techniques to translate a topic in a way that was never intended.

The loudest get the attention, not the most logical. The media gets payed on views and clicks and loud opposing opinions gives them that far more than logical stances.