A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

When Worlds Collide: Ethical Behavior is a Life-Long Journey

"You teach best what you most need to learn."
Illusions, by Richard Bach

At some time in a long-term relationship, we all reveal that we are pretty much the same people we were in high school. Personalities and behaviors don't change all that much. But how do you know your true character? For unless we are put to a test-a test that compares how we were then to how we are now-we can never really know.

Mark Lent knows. He learned something important about himself through a coincidental meeting with the daughter of a man he photographed about ten years ago. Our lives are composed of coincidences that constantly shape us. Most of the time we never learn of a coincidence that influences our life. Of the ones we do discover, most are curious synchronistic or serendipitous oddities that might make us giggle and tingle, but that's about all. A few are nothing short of miraculous and contain the power to drastically change the direction and content of our lives. A few provide the opportunity to recognize important truths about ourselves. Although not a journalist any longer, Lent is an imaging and public relations person for a large construction company, he learned that the ethical behavior he practiced then while on an assignment enriches and confirms the ethical behavior he practices now.

Below is text from his original picture story he published on a website in 1998, used with his permission. The complete work can be found at the "Behind the Viewfinder" website here:

Most journalists will tell you that getting involved with your subjects is bad journalism. You lose your edge and objectivity. But every once in a while, you run across someone while covering a story that changes your whole life. Someone who is so extraordinary that you're drawn to them. In my journalism career, I have one of these people and his name was Jack Williams. Jack died a few years back of cancer and to this day, I miss the conversations and friendship that we had. I consider myself a journalist-even today, but I also, and above all else, consider myself a human being that cares about those around him.

Jack lived under a bridge that I regularly traveled to get to the Talladega Superspeedway. I remember working at the Daily Home in Talladega, Alabama and while at lunch one day, I read a small feature story in our sister paper, The Anniston Star about a man who was dying of cancer and living under the Choccolocco (pronounced Chalk-O-Lock-O) Creek bridge on Highway 71. I was immediately intrigued and since I wasn't busy that day, decided to go down and take a look for myself.

I have to admit that after seeing Jack and his living conditions, I felt sorry for him. The story that I had read earlier in the day was also written sympathetically, so I guess this shouldn't have surprised me.

I shot images of Jack for the next week-fitting in time whenever I could while getting back to the business of newspaper journalism. We published the story the following week and I was surprised that what I'd written was almost opposite from the one that I had originally read in the Anniston Star. After talking to Jack at length, I didn't feel any sorrow for him. Jack loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors. His last wish was to be surrounded by these things. Jack was doing exactly what Jack wanted to do. I came to admire this. Living in Alabama in the winter is cold and wet-not an easy way to live. And yet, this tall, frail looking man embraced it.

I think that as a journalist, one of the most important things that you can do is to be objective. Jack was an excellent example of this. To look at him from the outside is to see something totally different from looking deeper into the inside of the person. Jack was not rich or well educated. But, what made Jack stood out because of his humanity and his love for everything around him. Jack Williams lived a good life and I hope that as I live my life, I can be that same kind of person.

Lent was able to remind himself that the ethical practice of not making preconceived conclusions about persons based on their appearance, economic situation, behavior, and so on was a tenet to live by when he was just starting out in photojournalism and is a tenet for him now. It is easy to stereotype-to make conclusions based on generalized and preconceived notions about a member of a cultural group, rather than quiet our internal biases and face another person solely as an individual, worthy of our best assumptions. It is easy to assume that a man who lives under a bridge must be a drug addict, a criminal, a wasted life, and someone not worthy of our attention. Far too often, the "man under the bridge" stories appear on Thanksgiving Day as morality tales-as a way of pointing out just how "lucky" the rest of us are.

But Lent was able to go beyond the stereotype and see the person. And because of that, he was able to teach himself and all of us that lesson.

Here is a follow-up to his story that he recently told to the members of the NPPA listserv:

Well, I learned a valuable lesson today. Ironically, I was teaching a photojournalism class to a room of fourth graders and was talking about Jack Williams who was dying of cancer and lived under a bridge in Talladega county. My point to the class was that you can't prejudge your subject-regardless of the circumstances. Jack had a profound effect on my life and to this day, I miss his friendship and told the class this.

I noticed that one of the teachers in the back of the room was crying and got up, and left the room. After the class, I checked on her and asked if she was okay. She told me that Jack, the man that I'd written about, was her father and that the stories that I had done about him were framed in her home. She received the stories after his death and because he was mostly a drifter, had not been able to communicate with him for the full ten years previous to his death. Needless to say, chills ran up my spine when I heard this. I told the woman that I had several things that Jack had given to me right before his death, and that then now belonged to her. I'm planning on going home tonight and find all of my old negatives of him, along with the stories and poems that he gave me as a Christmas present and will give them to his daughter tomorrow when I go back to the school for my class.

I learned today that we, as journalists have far reaching effects on our readers. These stories were 10 years old now and to think that not only are they framed and proudly displayed in someone's home, but the final momento that a daughter has of her father is amazing to me.

Sorry for rambling, but this has just blown me away and I wanted to share it with the list.

We are sometimes told that an ideal photojournalist should be as neutral as the flat plane of film that lays silently and ready against the backplate of a camera. But of course, we are not pieces of film or 0s and 1s on a chip. And so, on occasion, our biases show. We let slip stereotypes into our thinking and we fail society because we focus on the light reflected off a face, but not the inner light. We show the world the brutal act, but not the reason for it. But we are charged to do more and must do more.

Every now and then, in our own work, or, most likely, in the work of others, we are reminded of that charge. Mark Lent reminds us that the person we are now will affect our own selves and those we touch through our photography or by any other means, in the future. It's never too late to get beyond the common stereotype, to show the whole person, to reveal the whole story, to act ethically and responsibly, to do the right thing.

Here's a charge for you. The next assignment you get after reading this column-whether it is a pet-of-the-week or a 4-alarm fire downtown, make your pictures with the thought that in ten years, through some kind of bizarre coincidence, you will meet someone connected to the pictures you shot. Will it be a significant encounter? Will you be embarrassed? Will you be moved to tell of the meeting to the members of the NPPA listserv?

A photojournalist is a mixture of a cool, detached professional and a sensitive, involved citizen. The taking of pictures is much more than F-stops and shutter speeds. The printing of pictures is much more than scanner and computer settings. The publishing of pictures is much more than cropping and size decisions. A photojournalist must always be aware that the technical aspects of the photographic process are not the primary concerns. A mother crying over the death of her daughter is not simply an image to be focused, a print to be made, and a picture to be published. The mother's grief is a lesson in humanity. If the photojournalist produces a picture without a thought for her tragedy, the lesson is lost. But if the photographer cares for her loss, is made more humane, and causes the readers to share in her grief, photojournalism has reached its highest potential. Despite its frustrations and low moments, the lesson of humanity is why photojournalism is an extremely rewarding profession. For that reason, photojournalism is worthy of the most ethical actions possible toward the people you encounter through your photography yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

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