Gareth Powell (one time publisher of POL magazine) sent me a link to a story in the UK newspaper The Guardian ( with the email headed Photographic Morality. As well, as a reminder of the story of the 1969 undercover intrusion into an intensive care ward by a photographer dressed as a doctor, to photograph the then girl friend of Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, who was in a coma after a drug overdose.

Forty three years ago the photograph, published in The Sydney Daily Mirror, caused a real fuss about the morality (not to mention the legality) of penetrating a hospital in disguise to photograph a person in intensive care without their knowledge, or consent.

Peter Carrette, the photographer concerned ( the photo probably made his reputation) had no qualms about it reportedly describing her as a “just a dirty little junkie.” He is supposed to have made $2,000 from it at the time … a considerable sum then, being about ten times the going rate for a full page magazine shot.

To my mind it was a grubby episode exploited by the photographer, the newspaper and the picture agency which sold the image worldwide for commercial gain. It was simply gratuitious sensationalism which was, in no way, in the public interest except in a voyeuristic sense. As such it is unjustifiable exploitation.

Not so clear cut are the photographs featured in The Guardian article. Whether or not the photographer should have helped rather than taking the photograph is one issue. Whether the picture should have been taken at all is another.

I found the article interesting and the comments from readers even more so but there was one aspect of the debate that wasn’t mentioned and that was the attitude of some photographers. Carrette took the Marianne Faithfull shot for money, and I have no doubt that other photographers would  do the same. But there are other factors at play which come into play.

Tim Page, one of the best photographers of the Vietnam War, gloried in his role as a combat photographer saying in a lecture I attended many years ago “that it was the only time of my life, that I was truly alive. I loved it.”  He was driven by the adventure, the danger and the excitement of it … the subject matter was secondary.  The morality of what he was doing was a non-issue for him.

Sebastiao Salgado, at an opening of an exhibition of his work I attended spoke of  the line he walked, believing that he was helping the people he photographed by bringing their plight to the fore, while the income he derived from the photographs allowed him to continue doing so. He was aware of the possibility of what he was doing being seen as exploitative.

Three photographers, three different attitudes.

There’s no easy answer to what is moral and what is not in news or documentary photography. Like it or not, being a news photographer or a photojournalist is a job, and if you don’t work you don’t eat. Sometimes it is a simple as that.


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