This essay references the books Ways of Seeing by John Berger, On Photography by Susan Sontag; the film Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni, and the photograph "Napalm Girl" taken by Nick Ut. I would highly recommend looking into these pieces.
In any situation involving a camera, the individual standing behind the lens is granted more power than the subject being shot. The photographer has the leisure to display the subject however they want and the ability to bring positivity or negativity to the conversation. Photographers hold a power when capturing their subjects and sharing them to the rest of the world, and with that power comes responsibility to use their influence for the good rather than abusing their power by exploiting their subjects and the photographer’s influence on the viewer.
In a photographer/subject relationship, photographers are the ones with the ability to capture their subject in whatever way they see fit. The photographer has the ability to control the way someone or something is seen by the world. As Susan Sontag says in her book On Photography, “...Photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power” (Sontag 8). Photographers have the ability to use photography for something other than just a pretty picture. This plethora of power brings into discussion how the photographer uses it and the role of the photographer. I believe that photographers owe it to their subjects to represent them accurately, and respectfully. That does not mean that the photographer does not have the right to create an image that is geared towards one view over another. Many political photographs are biased, but it is important that they are fair and not limiting what the audience sees. People are allowed to have opinions, but it is important to keep in mind how they are portraying a person to the public. Especially in news photography, it important for the photographer to understand that they are the connection between the issue and the rest of the world. It is the photographer’s responsibility to be fair and not hide the whole truth from the audience. Using photographs as pure entertainment and exploiting individual’s differences for amusement is violating the trust between a photographer and the individual. The photographer’s role is capture the world to open up discussion of positive change, not a platform of humiliation and disrespect.
Over the years, photographers have used their power positively by creating images that open up discussion of important issues. Nan Goldin photographed her close friends and people that she knew in her community, many who were drag queens. Goldin did not exploit these people because she knew them personally and was able to represent them as they actually were in a way that did justice to them. On a larger scale, photojournalists have a very important role when in comes to capturing moments in worldwide events. In the photograph “Napalm Girl”, a girl and some other children are seen fleeing a napalm bombing behind him while their village burns, as well as their clothes and backs. This photograph is very controversial, but an important photograph to consider when discussing the impact of photography. This iconic image stands as an important reminder of the horrific devastations of the Vietnam War. The intimate involvement of photojournalists in horrific situations is a global conversation. It is important to note that the photographer is not taking the photograph for entertainment or to exploit these children, it was taken to bring awareness to the atrocities of the Vietnam war. Photojournalists must continue to break into “uncomfortable” scenes in order to enact true change and bring awareness to issues.
It can be influential to photograph atrocities, but sometimes photojournalists can lose a sense of their humanity and violate ethical codes while trying to chase their vision. Many photographers get so involved in their craft that they become numb to what is write in front of them. Photojournalist Kevin Carter took a photograph called “Starving Child and Vulture” in Sudan in 1993 which depicted a starving child being stalked by a vulture. This photograph spreads the awareness of poverty in Sudan, but also brings up a critical debate on the ethics of photojournalism and when humanity is at stake. Carter waited twenty minutes for the vulture to open its wings for the picture, but it never did. He was not supposed to touch the victims because of disease, but he still stood by to watch and record this horrific scene. This photograph proves to be one of the most controversial photographs that reveals the fine line that photographers must walk on when capturing critical moments.
Photographers can abuse the large amount of power they have, whether it be an amateur photographer just getting started or a famous professional photographer taking advantage of younger models. With all the power that photographers hold behind their cameras, it is easy to abuse that power. As Susan Sontag says, “Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance. The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment” (Sontag 13). Detachment is a key element here because it is when the photographer starts viewing the subject as an object rather than a human being that photographers starts to become detached and start to abuse their power. In the movie Blow-Up, the photographer uses his status as a prominent photographer to mess with models to get what he wants. He views his subjects as objects rather than humans with real feelings. He uses the fact that they want their picture taken to treat them in inappropriate ways, such as groping and also yelling. These girls do not say anything back either because their careers depend on their photographs being taken. It is often hard for the subject to go against the power of the photographer because they either rely on the photographer to take their picture, or the photographer has something against them. In Blow-Up, the photographer caught the women doing something that involves a dead body, so because of the photographs, he holds even more power over her. In addition, in John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, he describes women being painted or photographed in the nude purely for the pleasure of the surveyor. This abuse of power can also be seen in art photography when women are exploited while under the assumption they are creating art. This is just another way that the creator holds the power to exploit sexuality in addition to tragedy.
The photographer holds a certain amount of power over the subject that must be handled responsibly. With this power, photographers can either use this power for good by spreading important issues, or they can abuse this power and exploit the subject. The role of the photographer is to create an image that does the subject justice, but many times photographers get so caught up in their work and vision that their humanity and ethical standards are clouded. Conversations such as these are imperative when discussing the limits of the photographer and to ensure that the power that photographers are given is used to better the world and educate the global community on important issues that are best shared through visuals.