We don't need to reinvent the wheel.

By John Long


Over the past 20 years I have received thousands of phone calls and emails asking for my opinion on ethical questions, and I am always happy to reply as best I can. I do not have any lock on truth, but I am always willing to try to apply some logic to the issue at hand.

Over the past six months or so, almost every ethical question I have been asked has dealt with the problems faced by still photographers who are trying to come to terms with audio or video. The question keeps coming down to, “Should we apply the ethical standards used by TV photojournalists for the past 50 years to what we do as still photojournalists, who are now being asked to create videos and sound/slide shows for our Web sites?”

Are our ethical standards different? Are still shooters more ethical than TV shooters? Do the technical limits of our respective equipment force us to act differently? Sometimes still shooters bemoan the ethics of the TV shooters they work with on the street – but we are not such angels ourselves; witness the Allan Detrich debacle at The Toledo Blade. Let’s not throw stones; rather let’s learn from each other.

In essence, we all tell stories and tell them truthfully, as best we can. This is our purpose, our mission, our profession, be it in stills or video.

So much of what we hold as ethical precept is actually convention – merely socially agreed upon norms, not commandments come down from the mountain. However, all photojournalists believe that the purpose of what they do is to provide truthful information to the reader or viewer. This is the ethical rule; this is the guiding principle. How we accomplish this in many ways is subject to evolution, interpretation of symbolism, and arbitrary regulations.

As we converge, as TV and still photojournalism overlap, today’s still photographers feel set adrift in uncharted waters, unsure as to how to apply their photographic ethical standards to the new video and sound productions they are being asked to produce. It is not far different from the ethical angst we went through in the late ’80s and ’90s when the electronic revolution hit our profession, the ramifications of which are still being felt.

Today we are at this late ’80s stage in regard to video and sound.

Suddenly still photographers are becoming aware of issues TV photojournalists have been dealing with for a long time: sliding sound, B-roll, sequencing, etc., and we are confused and full of that angst again. It will take time and lots of discussions before we arrive at consensus, just as it did with the digital revolution. For now, few absolutes exist.

For example, it has been suggested that we look at “B-roll” (extra footage shot to fill in gaps in the video presentation) as equivalent to the environmental portrait, which still shooters have always considered open to control. In portraiture we can move our subjects around, change the lighting, make many exposures, and control all aspects of the scene. This is a total departure from the way we deal with documentary photographs where we attempt to control nothing.

I am not endorsing this interpretation of “B-roll” footage ... yet, but it warrants debate. I just mention this as one way of using creative thought processes when dealing with our new problems.

As a result of discussions at the Flying Short Course, NPPA will be attempting to bring some clarity to this process by having a major session at the next convention to see if there are ethical guidelines we can suggest for audio and video shooters. A preliminary discussion will be held at the Northern Short Course to be held in Rochester, NY, in March.

In the digital arena we have come to realize we cannot legislate every ethical nuance but rather we attempt to set down general guidelines and principles for shooters to use when making their own decisions. The same will apply to audio and video, and the simple answers shooters are looking for are just not there.

If we begin with the first principle that we are trying to be as honest as we can, it takes away much of the angst we feel. If faced with a problem such as filming an opening shot when the only way to do so is by setting up the scene, then ask yourself: “Is this accurate? Is this fair? Is this honest storytelling?” If you can honestly answer these questions and can sleep at night with your decision, it is probably the right answer.

Personally, I could not set up a shot either in stills or on video and then sleep well.

Confusion is rampant, and simple answers are not available. The discussion over the next six months (and beyond) will be interesting, to say the least. And as Bette Davis once said (slight misquote): “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Recently retired from a lengthy career at The Hartford Courant, Long chairs NPPA’s Ethics & Standards committee and he’s also an NPPA past president. His updated DVD, “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography,” is available for purchase online at the NPPA Photo Club at www.nppa.org. You can write to Long at [email protected]