The context and process behind a photograph can be interesting on a technical level when it comes to the gear, film, lighting setup, and any artistic emotion or guidance that may have gone into it from a photographer with an interesting backstory to them.
Defining Photojournalism and Activism
Photojournalism can be practiced in many ways, whether moment-to-moment reportage of breaking events, long-term documentation over a number of years, a combination, or anything in-between. It can result in images with artistic merit, or exist solely to tick an editor-mandated box. However, the use-case and intention for these photographs are where the definition starts to constrain, as if they do not serve to illustrate a breaking, developing, or retrospective story then at best they are very poor, even useless examples of the form.
The best photojournalistic photographs illustrate the story, ideally via factual presentation, in a way clear enough that it can be understood universally, defying language and cultural barriers. Some reportage photographers take a more stripped-back visual approach, producing images as bullet points, punchy for mass appeal. A long-form documentarian has the time to explore many ways of seeing and interpreting a story. For all of these, the story defines the location and other parameters of the work. Telling that story is the agenda by which the work is produced.
Activism is built on an agenda. To be active in society politically, socially, and inter-culturally, to participate and work to set trends, influence decision-making, and propagate or amplify a message is at the heart of what many activists practice. Whether this is through small subtle actions or large-scale disruptive possibly destructive tactics the heart of their behavior is the active participation in promoting and fulfilling the goals of their cause.
In photojournalism, the message is defined by the story. In activism, the message is the thing itself.
Some may categorize activism as something more engrained in everyday life, such as voting with your wallet in buying from certain places and not others as a consumer. The kind of activism that can fall within a documentary context could look like journalistic or political or informative dissemination in a certain way.
All ideas that are transmitted are being “propagated,” so narrowing down which ones count as propaganda relies heavily on their context, both how they are presented, and how they were made. In a way, activism is just another form of PR and communication. It can be a campaign involving awareness building, or stunts from simply walking with a placard to extreme acts of violence. In the same way, that journalism can be taken out of context and used for PR, which is why the photographer should share at some point what their original purpose was. In such a situation, that context truly does matter for the interpretation of the image in its original positioning as well as its manipulated use case.
A photojournalist, like an academic researcher, ought to be open to having their hypothesis falsified. For example, let’s say I have an idea for a photo essay about how households in England will stay warm this winter during a pressing fuel and price of living crisis. I may supposedly visit some areas and photograph people around their fireplaces or with electric blankets, but I may also find that many more people are unable to do either of these things and will simply be cold. I would have the option presented to me in this hypothetical to either document those who have methods of staying warm, document those who do not, a combination of both, or look at some option I haven’t either considered.
There is always the opportunity for a story to pivot, and a photojournalist must decide what direction they can follow it in. They can also recognize the existence of those different directions, note them, but continue on their original path, which shows that they were confronted with new information but chose to continue telling the story to match their original expectations.
The Difference in Practice
One of the strengths of photographing with a collective is that we can follow multiple directions and showcase diverse stories. An “auteur” approach to this would be closer to a form of Gonzo journalism, in which the storyteller’s perspective is key. What I may see as a “social issue” may be someone else’s “social opportunity”. At least by offering my perspective even for something as basic as that I am following through my honesty with clarity and openness.
In my hypothetical, if I were working for an outlet who were sponsored by, or had advertising space with a fuel supplier, or an electric blanket manufacturer, then there would be pressure on me to follow one of those stories but not the other. If I worked for a charity with an emphasis on the fuel crisis then I’d have pressure to look at the story in another direction. This is where I think activism starts to come into play, and the line begins to blur. With these, the message is decided on first, and everything else is twisted to fit the brief. There isn’t room to really explore the story without that autonomy, and whatever the result is will support the pre-supposition, instead of really answering a question.
Citizen journalism means an overlap in those able to conduct themselves as activists and as documentary makers. Documentary work is one of the most powerful and effective mediums to package a message, and activism has relied on the testimony a photograph can offer, combined with the ability to freely distribute that testimony via the printing press, and presently via the digital press.
The digital press has a lower threshold for entry than print mediums, and many activists and journalists are fulfilling their agendas solely on these web-based platforms. On the audience’s side of things, taken at face value, there may be no obvious way to discern an image made with an agenda of journalism and one with an agenda of activism. Looking closer at the source and methodology of a piece may be enlightening, but lines can always be seen as blurred depending on your outlook, and where one person may see factual reporting another may see an activist pushing their agenda.
It is possible for an impartial photojournalist with no stake in a situation to produce a body of work that ends up “supporting” one faction over another, even when made with utmost care to balance out the narrative. It can depend on the audience viewing the work, as those inclined to agree one way or the other will simply incorporate the story into their views without much critical analysis. Some narratives make far more “sense” to some audiences, which can lead to them being biased by nature of not taking the time to unravel context and nuance for an audience bringing their own pre-judgments to the situation.
Examples in History
W. Eugene Smith identified a powerful social injustice and dedicated himself to documenting it in order to have a social impact, shine a light on injustice, and use that awareness to bring about change. This is powerful activism, via the route of documentary photography. He produced his project Minamata: A Warning to the World after being contacted by one of the members of the movement itself. He was compelled to effectively adopt the cause, resulting in one of the most iconic pieces of documentary photography of all time.
In his approach, he did not only concentrate on one side but did his best to cover the story from all angles, which included the factory itself, key figures, and the surrounding area – not just photographs of victims. His methods were a combination of activism and journalism, and the result is a powerful testimony, which did a lot to assist in the change he was after. Does this make him an activist? Does it make him any less a journalist?
I think these labels are overly simplistic and point to an ideal form that may not exist in present-day reality. Humanism is at the forefront of a lot of documentary work being produced, as people want to be creating a reflection of the world they want to see, or want to fix. Does this mean that all humanists are activists regardless of their methodology?
There has been discussion around the way the Vietnam War was televised, and widely broadcast to a population in America who were not directly attacked, in order to bring that conflict home, and generate more support. No matter how impartially this may have been worked on by journalists the result was a propaganda effort. Propaganda isn’t necessarily a lie, it can be the entire truth used to propagate an agenda depending on the way it is framed, or the fact that it appears in discourse at all. Even the most straightforward reportage can be re-contextualized after publication.
That’s not to say that these journalists were activists, but that the result of their labor in the field was used in part or whole as propaganda. The methodology behind a work can only go so far, the point at which it really starts to affect an audience is where it shapes discourse one way or another.
Thinking About My Own Work
I have photographed in communities of minority groups in England, and am very careful about the way I present that work. In the context of my publications, they offer context, background information, and humanization of under-represented stories. However, I’m also aware that anyone could take my images out of context and use them to support their own narrative about that group. My control over my work ends on that printed page, and I’m very aware of the power remixing can have when the audience of the remix has never seen the original thing.
I take responsibility for my own work and publications; I can only use my authorial voice within the context of work I have authored. I am not responsible for the actions of those around me, I cannot account for every possible remix and reinterpretation of the work I make, and I can only ever do my best to support the work I put out within the context of itself and the way it was made, not by what someone else may bring to it, or turn it into. My narrative and agenda are always clear to the best of my ability. I offer context to my work in my writing on my blog and in other publications. I provide as much as needed within the body of a work itself.
So far in my work I wouldn’t call any of my projects examples of activism because my agenda is limited to the work itself, not to have that work do any more or less than be the most accurate account and testimony that I can provide. The stories I am interested in telling are more towards education and explanation, exploring ideas, rather than trying to put across one specific social message or cause. That may be present as elements inside the work, but so far it has not been a driving force.
As I wrote about “with photographing the military for my book D.C. Exclusion Zone, the images could have connotations for propaganda, pro-military, but could also be seen as a condemnation. If I had selected one or the other I could have made some very different work, but instead I was there to document everything I was able to, holistically without supporting factions. As such I don’t think the result comes across as a political piece, but a documentation of the manifestation at that specific place during that specific time.
Activism with a camera can take the form of documentary-style work; it can look like fine art or abstract imagery. It can take on any visual encoding style from the artist, but what sets it apart is the agenda behind it, the intent of the photographer to have their work have an effect on the discourse around a subject, to frame things in a certain way in order to further their own view of the world.
Another benefit to working with a collective outside of collaborative assignments is that I am in a continuing dialogue about the work I am producing, highlighting possible misinterpretations and my own biases, so that the work is guided by a collective and diverse vision rather than my singular interpretation. It isn’t a perfect system, but I think the results and the response my work receives speak for themselves. There is no aspect of my work that I would not be able to justify and explain within the context of its creation if needed. I work on the brief, research and development, and curation informed by the insight of my peers.
Self-driven stories mean that I can work on what I personally want to explore, and my motivation is further understanding for others and myself. This means that by default I am amplifying causes and situations that are involved in that subject, even though I didn’t explicitly start out with an agenda to amplify; they just happen to intersect with the specific ideas I am looking at.
The Challenge of Objectivity
Objectivity is difficult to achieve for anyone, whether you’re an activist or not. For example, in documenting two sides of a conflict (similar to Eugene Smith with Minamata) you may find one group is friendlier to the camera than the other. If you are able to produce rich testimony of a group friendly to you, and superficial testimony of a group hostile towards you that is going to show one group in a different light, despite your attempts to overcome the difficulty and strive for objectivity. This doesn’t make the photographer biased, but it does bias the work and the way an audience will read it.
You can cut objectivity in terms of politics, sociology, or intersectionality, but ultimately it will always be subjective to the photographer. Everything else is a contextual framing aspect to that story, and they should be identified and understood and included either in the text or the meta-text when the work is published.
In my view, objectivity involves being “equally incredulous”. It means setting a bar and being accurate and vigilant in investigation. As above, if you have two sides to a story, one of whom is peaceful and truthful, and the other side is violent and dishonest, then objective reporting will seem biased towards the peaceful and truthful side even though it is simply accurate reporting. If the peaceful and truthful side is recorded as being violent or lying then that bias is reinforced.
Sometimes reality is inherently biased – poverty, inequality, war, and crime, rarely have a positive spin. If you were to try and balance and show some positivity — for example, if you photographed a victim of a drone attack — and the CEO of the company who profited from that drone that could be a balanced account, but I am sure people would still claim it was biased in favor of the victim.
While working on my projects I am engaged in introspective practice, constantly checking back in with the theory and research, context, and process when reviewing images I have made, and story elements I have written. I have a look at whether aspects may have affected me in different ways, and how that will direct my continued efforts for those stories. It’s not a matter of blocking bias but lamp-shading it, being clear about my stance, accepting that there will always be flaws, and being upfront while allowing the work itself to speak for itself within that flawed context.
Ethics and Journalism
Personal integrity, accuracy, and understanding that people can be more than one thing aside, there is still the more practical issue of working under the shadow of being labeled as an activist, as most people would tend to use the word. Someone can have perfect integrity and work within very strict parameters of journalistic ethics and still have a difficult time if they are identified or self-identify explicitly as an activist.
Engaging in performative activism like carrying banners or flags, or even wearing a specific pin, can be looked on as a reason to question the work being produced by them. Breaking the law or other crimes, marching along with processions, and so on even more so would call into question the photographer’s integrity, even if they are already upfront about their involvement with an organization.
This kind of behavior also makes it dangerous for other journalists — if people develop a view of journalists as people from the “other side,” then counter-activists or police can target them based off of this prejudice. It means that one person with a camera can ruin it for everyone else if they show partisanship, even if those others did nothing wrong, there is a sort of collective reputation that should be defended – showing that journalists can be trusted helps all journalists, and showing they do not can put others at risk. Even here, this is a bias towards a “journalist” subgroup, which even though I feel ought to be a given is still down to the individual to incorporate, understand, and make their own mind up.
People’s view of “the media” is shaped by more than just the behavior of journalists and photographers, but there is a powerful effect from that view on the way work can be done. In cultures where there is a healthy fourth estate, with many competing opinions around well-researched facts, the role of a journalist is easier, as they are operating in a network where their role is understood, trusted, and relied on. In places where “the media” is seen as homogenous, it is much easier to vilify the practice and therefore practitioners, even when the criticism towards the whole does not apply. I don’t want to contribute to vilification, but I also know that it isn’t entirely down to me as an individual, so there’s not a lot I can do other than conduct myself as best as I can.
This is partly why labels matter to some, whether that’s ‘journalist,’ ‘photojournalist,’ ‘documentary photographer,’ etc, it can be about not so much assigning an in-group, but making sure you don’t get lumped together with an out-group, which may have negative connotations for you. The label “activist” certainly has negative connotations for those who disagree with their actions or goals, and is seen as unethical when in a combined label with “journalist” which to most holds a high standard of impartiality and non-partisanship. It extends beyond a semantic discussion and into real-life consequences for the way that language shapes our day-to-day realities.
Be Open and Honest
While I have some fairly rigid boundaries for my own practice I don’t think it’s easy to enforce this sort of standard on others. People should be open about what their standard involves but that doesn’t mean anyone else should be required to follow it, only to work on their own and be equally honest about it. Honesty I think is the lowest bar that can be set for people to realistically follow, as even someone who hasn’t even thought about where they stand can answer honestly that they haven’t thought about it.
It is difficult to maintain ethical boundaries if you aren’t able to find an appropriate balance and your priorities are weighted more towards one or the other, towards journalism or activism. If you have a cause you truly believe in but don’t produce the best photographic account that supports it then that can be damaging to your cause, and if you document with too much accuracy in some cases that could actually negatively impact your cause. If your goal is activism then using a camera may actually be limiting your contribution, and you may find better results from direct action without a camera where it is compromising your ability to really engage.
Photography is just one tool out of many, one way of many to communicate. Sometimes communication is what’s truly needed, and sometimes it’s action. Sometimes communication can be action, and sometimes it takes away from it. There isn’t an easy answer today when we cannot make a lifestyle choice without involving politics – down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat we are confronted with choices of ethics, supporting some business over others, supporting slavery and unethical behaviors. These are so mundane that it is easy to overlook and ignore this understanding of activism and instead focus on protestors, people holding signs, or throwing paint.
Some forget that we are not separate from the world, we are part and participant: we cannot create work that escapes from the context they are making it in, and the context it is experienced in.
About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.
Image credits: Photographs by Simon King