Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy,
University of South Florida
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications,
California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

The Irony of the Iconic:
Considering the Need for Criticism

(c) 2004

ICON: From the Greek eikon, to be like, to seem. 1. An image; a representation. 2. An important and enduring symbol.

From the first permanent photograph produced by the French inventor Joseph Niepce with his heliographic process in 1826 to the present day, the number of still images recorded and presented by amateur and professional photographers dwarfs the volume of hamburgers served by the McDonald's fast-food chain. For example, it's estimated that over 80 billion photographs were taken in 2003 alone. Likewise, the number of events captured on videotape since Charles Ginsburg of Ampex introduced the technology at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1956 defies quantification.

Despite the quantity of recorded images, the number of memorable still and video pictures that qualify as icons for a particular culture at a particular time -- representing the union between the literal (the straight-forward message presented by the image) and the symbolic (the often culturally-specific and deep-rooted emotional connection with the picture's content) as implied by the word's definition -- wouldn't fill a digital card or slide projector tray.

It's important for news photographers to think about the nature of icons because each news image has the potential of reaching this status. Icons, by definition, inform and reinforce cultural understandings. But unlike the more common definition of the term in which an image merely stands for a close approximation of the thing being represented (a bison painting on a cave wall or a printer picture on a computer's desktop, for example), icons as we're discussing them have an essential responsibility to truth. As the power of an image is magnified by icon status, the need for absolute accuracy and integrity is magnified as well. If a news image is the first draft of history, an icon is the final presentation.

Once an image is deemed iconic, critical assessments of its creator, production, and use are subjected to intense scrutiny and, ultimately, unquestioned belief and fierce loyalty. Icons carry emotional attachment. Once accepted, those attached to the particular image, maker, and/or content do not like their beliefs associated with it questioned.

That emotional attachment to an iconic image may explain why some readers objected to our criticisms of historic photographic icons within the context of a discussion on manipulation. When people think that they know the circumstances of an iconic event, or have attached meaning to it, they can become defensive when those deeply-held beliefs are challenged.

Yet, as we dealt with the sometimes venomous reactions to our questioning of iconic images, we were struck by the ironic implication that followed from the responses. Photojournalists, particularly those who felt that we were attacking historical shrines of the profession, cannot deny the necessity that every news photograph reflects the highest of currently understood ethical standards. Emotional attachment to iconic images, along with the uncertainty of which images will become icons, entails that all news images must be entirely accurate in development, context, capture, and presentation. No exceptions.

Because of the deep cultural significance of icons, they can seem almost untouchable for those who want to critically study them. Since icons are, by definition, important and enduring, the respect afforded them through their historical importance and use has placed these images practically out of reach for academic scholars. The charge of "revisionist history" is easily leveled at anyone attempting to use present ethical standards and moral sensitivities to judge the actions of photographers and content of pictures from the past. But it is through revisionism that ethical standards get advanced. Cultures advance only when participants can critically review the past and realize that things could have been done differently at the time and that they certainly would be done differently today.

As professions mature, some conventional behaviors, once universally accepted, become less than acceptable. Stage-managing of news subjects is an obvious example of a professional practice that has changed over time. News imagery is now better understood as "catching" a moment in history rather than helping to create it.

What if in the future it is considered unethical not to tell those in the news to turn a certain way and say a certain phrase in order for viewers to fully understand a story? That eventuality carries with it the need to re-examine what was acceptable before. The clash between the revered and the reviled, like that between the icon and the current ethical standard, forces us to consider and more clearly articulate the professional principles that we believe to be inviolate.

The job of visual journalists is to document persons and events in all their joy and inhumanity. If an icon is produced in the process, it means that the photographer or videographer captured a moment that will be remembered for generations. It should be hoped and expected that professionals and scholars of a future generation will critique the image in a way that will throw light upon the past, the present, and the future.

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