Ethics of execution photos

Kobre talks about four elements in photography, that if combined, would produce best examples of photojournalism: informational, graphically appealing, emotional, and intimate (p. 196). He also talks about three different approaches to ethics in photojournalism: Utilitarian (informing people as the highest priority), Absolutist (individual’s rights to privacy as priority), and the Golden Rule (treating the subjects the way you wish to be treated yourself as priority) (p.300).

The four elements he mentions for producing good photojournalism on page 196 completely make sense to me, and many great photos that I have seen in my life had all these four characteristics combined. But I’m not sure if these four elements can always be compatible with ethical approaches to photojournalism, specially the absolutist and the Golden rule ones.

Few months ago, Iranian news agencies published a lot of photos of public execution of “thugs, rapists, and thieves” in Tehran and some other big cities of Iran. I was appalled by seeing the pictures everywhere on the net. I was heart-broken to see people are posting the pictures in their blogs, as a chance to show their dissatisfaction with their government, without thinking about the right to privacy of the alleged convicts. On the other hand, as a person who is against any form of capital punishment, I thought it would be useful to have the photos of so many people hanged up in the air, because this might show the brutality of capital punishment, and might have some impact on people who do not necessarily find capital punishment wrong. Also, I thought the public has the right to know that their government mass execute people, without holding fair public trials for them (which is against Iran’s constitution).

But what concerns me the most and I hope you can help me digest, is what I call the artistic touch, or in Kobre’s word the “graphical appeal” some of these photos have. You can even see some novel angles in the photos. If the dead people were alive, some of the photos could have been really called appealing. I kept wondering (and I was confused) that how ethical it is to take eye-catching photos of an event so inhumane and brutal. If I were a photojournalist, I would try not to be sent on an assignment to take such photos to begin with, but I understand that there is merit in documenting these executions (not to mention that these photographers have been sent out on assignments to take these photos, and couldn’t perhaps reject taking the photos). But how far should we go? Should we always try to be artistic and have graphical appeal in every photo we take? Couldn’t simple shots of an event such as execution enough for informing the public?

You can see some of the photos I’m talking about in the following albums: 2007-07-17-Execution, 2007-08-01-Execution, 2007-09-02-Public Execution, 2007-09-11-Fortuneteller Executed in Qom.

The photos I’m specifically talking about are these: onetwothreefourfivesix.

(The owner of the above photoblog has not originally taken the photos. He’s copied and republished the photos from various Iranian news agencies.)


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