Decency and journalism

By Kristian Jebsen

On display at the ramp at Birkenau are photos documenting the selection process of Jews arriving by train from Hungary. The SS doctor stands in uniform, gesturing to his right, sending an old man with a cane to his death. Perpendicular to the offloading ramp, a long dirt path separates the male from the female section of the camp. It was along this path that thousands of people walked unknowingly to their deaths in Gas Chamber V. The path is lined with photographs of young children and their families, walking hand in hand, their final footsteps captured by a Nazi photographer.

I wonder at the callousness needed to take such photos. In the act of taking pictures of people in vulnerable situations, does a photographer or journalist disrespect the people he or she is photographing? Are powerful images taken in desperate circumstances important documents, regardless of the intentions of the photographer?

In her book, The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield says that images taken as a form of resistance to the Nazis cannot be easily separated from images taken by the Nazis, because of the horrific nature of what they depict. Images taken of suffering Jews indicate, she writes, “just how far outside the realm of recognizably human the Nazis had thrust themselves, they depict the photographer as well as the subject.”

If this is the case, then what if I, as a journalist, take powerful images of people suffering in war, or conflict or disaster? Does that place me outside of the realm of what is recognizably human? If it doesn’t, then what is it about the image that a passer-by would recognize that would validate me, the photographer, as a decent human being?

Jost image

A photograph from In the Ghetto of Warsaw, by Heinrich Jöst.

Yet if powerful photographs are what I am after, then perhaps I need to forfeit some decency. Linfield points to two German photographers, Heinrich Jöst, a Nazi, and Joe J. Heydecker, an anti-Nazi who found himself drafted into the Wehrmacht. Of the two photographers, Linfield says that Jöst takes images that reveal the inhumanity of the Nazi project simply because he had no sense of shame nor did he have any respect for his subjects. “Heydecker was the better man, but Jöst brought us better pictures,” says Linfield.

It seems unfortunate that journalists sometimes err on the wrong side of respect in order to get good pictures. There are certainly means with which a journalist can ensure that he or she has the consent of the subject, however when speed and deadlines are taking precedent, consent might not always have been established. When we as journalists become aware of this, how do we convince ourselves that respect for the subject is less important than the image itself?

The judgement, I think, rests not only with the journalists, but also with the subjects and their community. Perhaps we should let them, rather than history, decide.

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