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)

Why Are You a Photojournalist?
It's a Matter of Quality

... [I]f he takes whatever dull job he's stuck with ... and they are all, sooner or later, dull ... and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he's likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn't think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going. Chapter 29 of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values
Late August, Cory Ryan, a student in Mass Communication and Journalism at Minnesota State University, Moorhead posed a question to the NPPA list-serv, "Why Should I Do This?"

Ryan noted that "at least half the posts" that he had read over a year's period on the list-serv were complaints about "wages, unfair treatment, long and hard hours, and upsetting the public." He asked, "What motivates you to get up every day, pick up your camera, and go shoot?"

The responses were quick and heartfelt. Together they add up to a spectacular snapshot of the ideal photojournalist.

The ideal photojournalist is a composite of the model that working photographers hold in their minds and their hearts. The ideal is the combined view of what those responding to Ryan would like to be and what they would like to see their professional brothers and sisters strive to be.

It is important for all of us who take our work seriously to hold on to an ideal. Our individual idea of the ideal practitioner functions as the needle on our moral compass. When in doubt, we can think about what our moral hero would do. Aristotle might call it the person of practical wisdom. Kant would call it the person of good will. The ideal professional is certainly the call that leads us to strive to figure out the truly best thing to do and it is the image that gives us the courage to act on that conviction.

The primary values that came to mind from those responding on the list-serv were competence, dedication, and passion-elements that are a part of a larger concept, Quality.

Mark Loundy said, "Most do it for the love of the job."

Dick Kraus counseled, "It's tough out there. But there will always be a niche for the truly capable and dedicated news photographer."

Carmen Sisson warned Ryan and other young news photographers not to be too concerned about the complaints that are raised on the list. "If there is passion, Sisson writes, "even negative passion, there is still fire somewhere and as long as there is fire, there is life. You don't argue about something you no longer care about; if people on the list get worked up about things it is because they love this profession and want to see it survive and grow."

Indeed, Greg McReynolds suggested, "Photojournalism is almost more of a lifestyle than a career."

But having a calling to do the job isn't enough. There is something special about a photojournalist-curiosity, ability to size people up, vision, and pride in one's ability to do good work.

Paul Guillory said, "I liked meeting people. I liked studying what made people tick and studying how they acted. I found that if I got home and had met some interesting person, I was jazzed. Similarly, if I was able to watch someone work or play, anticipate how he was going to act and make a good picture, I believed I had succeeded."

Sisson added, "I've seen my name in print probably thousands of times, but it never really gets old. When I've done my best and am pleased with my work, it always gives me a thrill."

Marcelo Montealegre wrote, "I do it because that's what I am.... Are you a photographer? Then that's what you have to do. As a creative person, you will probably not make a lot of money, and that's the way it is."

Rob Miracle wrote that it helps if making a lot of money isn't your chief objective. "It's important that we don't sell ourselves cheap," Miracle explained. "But on the other hand, you have to look at the intangible values you get. Many of us enjoy learning. Every time I go on an assignment, I learn something. I meet someone who I didn't know."

And finally, Carmen Sisson, a freelance photographer for the Tuscaloosa News, appreciates the quality of the discussions found on the NPPA listserv: "Being able to let out frustrations in an online community of peers makes it easier to set those frustrations aside and move on to the next assignment. The list is a close approximation of true real life dialogue, in all its beauty and ugliness. The education that I have received from my years on the list has been extremely valuable and is largely responsible for much of what I know in terms of journalism ethics and the day-to-day business of being a photographer."

No one among staff photographers, videographers and freelancers alike would consider news photography an overly paid career. Some might argue that the work constitutes a profession, others consider it more like the life of an artist; still others describe a life of the independent adventurer, seeking the next hotspot to document. But each has a vision of him or herself that links to a personal ideal-an ideal that embodies the value that is called, Quality.

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