Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Are You an Ari or an Alice?
Learning to Live with your Professional and Personal Choices

"Fascinating and very, very useful colloquy between Doug and Paula. From such well-directed heat does white light come."
David C. Walsh,
Sometimes this column writes itself, or more accurately, members of the photojournalism community write the column. Peter A. Calvin, a photojournalism instructor at Collin Community College in Plano, Texas wanted to explain the profession to his students. His query on the NPPA listserv evoked a compelling dialogue between Doug Thompson of Blue Ridge Photography with over 40 years of experience and Paula Lerner, Vice President of Editorial Photographers regarding the juggling of photojournalism and relationships. Which comes first may be a difference in style or may signal an important, genderized difference in how men and women view their work.

"At 55, I still love shooting and reporting. Yes, the money could be better, the working conditions could improve and we could have editors who understand the visual aspects of the story. But when I'm chasing a story, I don't give a damn about any of that. My wife sat alone at our honeymoon hotel because I took off to chase a tornado that ripped through a town 70 miles away. I missed my daughter's graduation because I was shooting a war several continents away. They understood. Photojournalism ... is, and always has been, my life."

Doug Thompson

"While I respect your love for the medium and commitment to photography, ... I honestly do not think it a positive thing to miss one's honeymoon or a daughter's graduation in favor of chasing tornadoes and wars. When you're on your deathbed and you look back at your life, will you be glad you were there for the tornado instead of your own honeymoon? Your daughter's graduation comes around only once in both your lives. There will always be wars and disasters to cover. The message to your wife and kids is that this passion of yours is more important than they are.

Paula Lerner

"I consider photography a calling, not a job and photojournalism a life, not a career. Does my family feel shortchanged? You'd have to ask them. My wife has been my partner for many, many years and has never complained. When possible, she accompanies me on shoots. But she also has a life and career of her own. My daughter, up until her death in 2001, was always supportive and understanding, even as a teenager. She rescheduled her wedding three times because I was overseas on assignments and then bragged about it to her friends. She also joked that she would check my assignment schedule to figure the best time to get pregnant and have kids.

"I don't think we can, or should, design a template for how people should structure their lives and priorities. Each of us has to approach life as an experiment and find an approach that provides balance and personal gratification. I love photography. It's what I do. It's what I am. I'm sorry if you find that level of commitment disturbing. Fortunately, those who share my life do not share your concern."


"It's not the level of commitment that I find disturbing, but rather the notion that this kind of commitment may not have a significant cost involved for both those who make it and their loved ones. Far be it from me to proscribe the choices of anyone else. If this works for you and your family, God bless you all.

"If your daughter brags about having to reschedule her wedding because of your schedule, you are unusually fortunate that she was so willing to accommodate her life on behalf of yours. My own experience is very different. When it looked like I was going to miss yet another important event in her life because of an assignment, one of my daughters flat out asked me with anger and tears in her eyes, 'Why don't you get another job?' She didn't care whether I had a mere 'job' or if I considered it a 'calling.' She just felt angry and hurt that I once again would not be there for her.

"Photojournalism and family life often do not go comfortably hand in hand. We make our choices and live with the consequences. It's just important to be realistic about what those are and not romanticize them in a way that obscures the price paid. Balance in life is elusive and hard to achieve, and I know perhaps a few too many photojournalists who leave broken marriages and damaged relationships with their children in the wake of their pursuit of their calling."

Paula Lerner

"Would I hop out of bed with my wife to grab my cameras and cover a fire or car wreck? No, because I stopped chasing scanner calls long ago (been there, shot that). Would I interrupt lovemaking when a plane crashes into the Pentagon? Absolutely. Covering a war in Bosnia or a Vietnam or a Desert Storm were life-defining assignments and, in my opinion at least, worth any sacrifice necessary."


While giving all of us a chance to think about what commitment to our jobs mean, Thompson and Lerner have modeled different worldviews that serve as alternative foundations for finding an answer. Thompson's view--that the ideal self is one who performs his duty, fulfills his calling as a priority over all else--has served as a basis for Western moral philosophy for the last 2500 years. Lerner's view--that one's ultimate worth is expressed through relationships with important others--represents a feminist alternative for developing one's ideal self. This second perspective emerges in women's writings for thousands of years as well, but didn't acquire legitimacy among philosophers until the late 20th Century.

Aristotle, the father of Western ethics, developed an ethics of strangers, based on the equal rights and equal standing of the free white adult men who were his peers. The primary questions that arose include the following: What do we want from other people regardless of whether they know or like us? What is my civic duty? What would it mean for I, alone, to be the best person I can be?

If Alice Stotle had had the power of Aristotle, ethics would have had a starting point in the home and in the messy network of relationships that constitutes a family, where no one is equal in rights or standing or development. The ethics that develops from that foundation creates different questions: What do others need from me? How can I empower each of us? How can we preserve the relationships among us? The morally mature person, from this perspective, measures her success by how well she has nurtured those in her sphere, including herself.

Many modern professional men and women have integrated these two perspectives on the job as well as at home and have been able to reconcile love and a career. But, professions generally reward productive values over those that are in the reproductive realm. How many awards are given for maintaining a healthy family while doing a good job? How many prizes are withheld because of a journalist's interpersonal dysfunction? The true worth of the Thompson/Lerner dialogue is that it provides a starting point for discussion on how to educate and promote humane professionals.

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