David Burnett: Letter to the NPPA on Ethics

David Burnett: Letter to the NPPA on Ethics

Editor’s note: Photojournalist David Burnett recently penned a letter to the National Press Photographers Association in response to the discussion around photographic ethics and the publication of the Photo Bill of Rights. With his permission, we are republishing it in its entirety.

To my fellow photographers & photojournalists, and members & leadership of NPPA:

I have been a photographer since JFK was President, and a member of NPPA for 52 years. I have never been, nor thought of myself, as a “Lens-based worker.” I find no shame in calling myself, and those in related vocations, photographer or photojournalist. Let’s leave it at that.

These days, that might disqualify me in some eyes for what I am about to say, but in spite of a current fad to dismiss anything aged or graying (or older than 32), I feel compelled to speak about the current state of affairs in photography in general, and at NPPA in particular, especially given the credit NPPA is taking for participation in the Photo Bill of Rights (BoR). (I was a college student when the operative phrase was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” I get it. ).

I do fall, admittedly, into the realm of being an aging white male, though I would vehemently take issue that I, and the photojournalists of my generation, both women and men, set out to “colonize, disenfranchise, and dehumanize” either our photographic subjects, or other photographers, especially newcomers.

Much has changed in these decades, and the arrival of digital photography has greatly sped up the manner in which pictures are transmitted from event to publication, yet what hasn’t changed much are the underlying principles which the NPPA has stood for, virtually its entire existence:

https://nppa.org/code-ethics

There is almost no situation which the Photo Bill of Rights tries to address, especially with regard to the photographer – subject relationship which isn’t already delved into substantially in the Code of Ethics. It is a reminder that each photographer has a responsiblity to both Story and Subject.

Photography, photojournalism especially, has always relied on the intuitive energy of the individual to understand what a story is, and figure out a creative way to make photographs which connect with a visual audience. And while we have all been proud to work as teams, both with writers, reporters, fixers, and other photographers, we have always been aware that the power of our pictures is up to us as individuals: our reaction to the world around us, and a melding of vision and technique to produce images which might eventually be seen, and appreciated by the public.

Layered with that visual understanding must be, and I believe has been, the idea that, especially in stressful situations, we must rely on our humanity to connect with our subjects. This understanding is not something only recently discovered, and is, itself, not a simple thing to codify. Empathy and rapport have been around for ages, and for as long as I have been working, always tucked away in a corner of my Domke bag. Living as we do in a time of unrest, economic and social instability, the work we do has seldom been so important.

What remains one of the cornerstones of journalism, and one which cannot be tampered with or forsaken, is the ability of a free press to cover events unfettered by legalities or rules which would upend it. And though it keeps being given the asterisk of “…it’s only a toolkit…” the concept of including the issue of Consent from Subjects in Public spaces where for ages there has been no expectation of privacy, and the potential ceding of the right of a free press to operate using our own best judgment in our society, gives me the chills. Anything which gives away even the slightest freedom of observation is a detriment to both journalism, and society as a whole. Should we try to connect with our subjects? Sure, and that happens more often than not, but the idea of giving away consent runs counter to what our role is as witness and journalist.

While a number of the business-related BoR points are valid, much of the thrust of the work seems to have missed the advances in hiring and assigning, in the last generation. Certainly none of us working today would say that the world of photojournalism has been perfect, but to dismiss the changes of the last fifty years would be disingenuous. As outlined in the remarkable historic resource www.trailblazersoflight.com, there have been substantial numbers – hundreds – of professional women working in photojournalism for decades, both as editors and photographers.

This didn’t just occur when today’s young photographers first picked up a camera. Like many others, I have been dismayed by the attitude of those who created this BoR, since it does little to honestly address many of the hiring inequities, and seems filled with triggering language which focuses instead on people in the field who have been working for decades. We do not, unfortunately, hire ourselves. As freelancers, we rely on editors and researchers, most of whom work for large companies (or the shell of those companies) and over which our power of persuasion is, more often than we’d like to admit, rather limited.

Those are the people who can change hiring practices, not other photographers. And in a time of far fewer resources being devoted to photography, to assume that we should pass on work simply because others are more “deserving” is fanciful. For many of us, both getting work from other over-booked photographers, and giving jobs over to others when there was a conflict, is something which has existed for years.

We all agree that efforts to expand the pool of photographers to better include those who have been under-represented is of prime import. But, please know that 2020 is NOT 1960.That said, as I read it, much of the language in BoR seems to me like a broad-sweeping dismissal of the accomplishments of 75 years of photojournalism, in favor of some newly arrived at, carefully outlined “enlightened” view of what the REAL purpose of photography ought to be, and that this purpose is understood and embraced solely by the new practitioners of the trade. It would help to have an MA in Sociology.

When I was in my twenties I felt it a privilege to speak to the man who photographed Harry Truman’s victory in 1948, and the woman whose pictures of authors created a true gallery of great writers of the 50s, 60s and 70s. To be in their presence was informative and enlightening. What I learned from them has stuck with me to this day.

This BoR document feels as if it wants to erase any connection to the past which, honestly, is as sad for me as it is for you. Part of me feels that the appropos thing to do would be to withdraw my membership from NPPA, after 52 years, as a statement of principle. The phrase-driven BoR effort to chart the wrong kind of change seems to me to be totally out of place for a once time-honored organization that has well represented the interests of press photographers, and continues to support its members.

Yet to quit would be to get out of the discussion, and I don’t think I am quite there yet. NPPA has been a place where photographers cared about photography, journalism, and the right of a public to see the news as well as read about it. Bringing an honest, sensible point of view to the Association should be the goal of every photojournalist in the country. In turn, NPPA being an organization of members who are both deeply experienced practitioners, and relative newcomers, there exists an obligation to take notice, listen, and hopefully learn.

David Burnett

Magazine Photographer of the Year 1980
Sprague Lifetime Achievement 2018
Co-Founder, Contact Press Images

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. Scott Highton at 2:21 am

    Most of what the various photo acronyms (pro photo organizations) repeatedly seem to be doing today is to somehow limit those who enter the profession in an effort to stifle their completion somewhat.

    Failing that, they try to “educate” these newcomers to their more established way of thinking, so that presumably, these newcomers won’t wind up competing “unfairly” with them.

    Sometimes this works, but often it’s for naught. New photographers come in, listen to what the status quo are telling them is the fair way to compete, and then use that information to undercut and promote their own interests over those of the organizations’ well-intended members.

    I’ve seen it over and over, both as a long-time NPPA member and as a national director of ASMP.

    Formal ethics statements by pro photo groups are generally just another effort to “level the playing field” and to try to get other photographers to live & work by the morals of a certain leadership group.

    These often sound good on paper, but when push comes to shove, photographers (who are generally fiercely independent people) will usually do what happens to be in *their* particular interests – not those of their competitors.

    Ethics discussions are often quite useful, because they force us to think about what’s right and wrong. But trying to force your ethics on others generally comes across as pompous and arrogant. When these are combined with recommended business practices, there’s a danger that everything willl go in one ear and out the other.

    Today, most of the pro photo organizations have become toothless groups of photo enthusiasts and part-time pros. Constantly changing ethics statements and business practice directives seem too often to be struggling efforts at trying to remain relevant. 🙁

    • eric at 2:33 pm

      That’s of course nonsense. Back when I decided to get out of the profession it was for a simple reason. They pay was terrible, and the consolidation of newspapers was causing people to be laid off left and right, everywhere I looked.

      There is no secret to why it’s hard to get work in photojournalism. It’s because the jobs aren’t there any more. Don’t blame the people who got in by luck of their birthdate.

      When I moved into working for a non-profit research and educational institute, I was very lucky to be able to travel the world making photos. But I spent 90 percent of my time working at a desk producing visual content for educational material. As a photo editor I watched as stock agencies consolidated (and the promise of Corbis photographers making it into Getty was a hollow promise at best) and photographers became so desperate that they accepted their cut of $93 for photos I used to pay $400 to $1,500 for. My $150,000 budget was cut to $30,000. I would have loved to pay more, but being a non-profit, my employer wouldn’t allow it.

      David Burnett says it was better than, and more kindly, than I could. I hope he sticks it out. I dropped my NPPA membership for similar reasons he gives.

  2. A.J. VH at 7:39 pm

    David-

    Thank you very much for this letter. I was a photojournalist for nearly thirty years, and recently retired due to the changes in industry paradigm over the past decade and some change. I had been an NPPA member for years and ended my membership of 25 years when I retired.

    I left the industry in 2019 as an editor making less money than when I had entered as an intern photographed in 1992. Digital, social media, and cellphone cameras did our industry no favors, and my final years working were terrible. I spent many of my days bullied by management to lay off photographers, to be replaced by unpaid interns with large social media feeds, before finally giving it up.

    It saddens me beyond words, reading this BoR. And, it makes me even more thankful that I had chosen to retire when I did to finish off my working years as a teacher. Just reading the BoR got my blood boiling and felt like the final slap in the face of my profession. I probably would not be able to have written the letter you did as elegantly as you had.

    Thank you again.

    -A.J.

  3. CL at 10:14 am

    I concur with Mr. Burnett. I read that BoR and got a good chuckle…that and felt sorry that the NPPA would even consider to go along with it. The fact is and has been for many many years just because you have a camera and make photos doesn’t make you a photojournalist. Yes, a photojournalist, not that ridiculous new monicker “lens based worker”. I’m retired recently but the fact that some of these “lens based workers” think it’s ok to digitally manipulate photos to hide protesters identities completely solidifies the argument that they are anything but photojournalists. If the NPPA wants to go this route they will lose even more professionals journalists as members. I was in the NPPA for two decades but dropped my membership when the organization became useless to me. The Cult of Personality and Influencers will put the last nail in the coffin of the NPPA.

  4. Barry Schwartz at 2:50 pm

    Thank you, David, for this. I’m a professional photographer, member of NPPA, SPE (Society of Photographic Educators), and ASMP, where I served two terms on the national board.

    Just today, a group of eminent professionals, many with impeccable progressive credentials, posted a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” on Harper’s Magazine and other publications around the world. That letter, to say the least, is getting a lot of press and coverage on social media, and is very much along the same lines as your own.

    Intolerance can run in both directions, and discounting nuance can so easily lead to snap judgements towards people and ideas that deserve an empathetic understanding. That works right-to-left, and left-to-right. I’ve been there, and really, so have most people. The trick is to learn from the experience; developing empathy is hard, but it gets easier with practice. I’m completely thrilled to see the swing back to progressive activism (long overdue!) and I’m just as happy to see people such as yourself try to foster an empathetic view of the world.

    The letter is here: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

    A great New York Times piece about it is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/07/arts/harpers-letter.html

  5. Alison at 4:12 pm

    Mr. Burnett: While I appreciate the sentiment of taking the time to craft a lengthy letter admonishing the NPPA for their support of a new bill of rights for photographers, I disagree that this proposal is unnecessary. It is only unnecessary if you are a white male.

    I will not go point by point. I will however remind you that it wasn’t very long ago when Nikon took heat for all their masters profiles- what was it 16 of them- being male.

    After many years as an ASMP member, I gave up my membership when my regional representative posted “a camera bag so attractive your wife will want to carry your gear for you.”

    I was also a NPPA member when I credentialed to cover a story for NASA. An uncredentialed stringer told me straight to my face after I disembarked an aircraft I was photographing that “your eyelashes must be longer than mine.”

    I have also photographed my share of POTUS, although I’m a little younger so mine are Obama and Trump. I have sat on a press riser shoulder to shoulder amongst 50 other WHPP credentialed photojournalists as the single female on the riser.

    I appreciate the time and effort you’ve given to the profession. But you cannot, will not, ever, not ever as a white male over 50, begin to comprehend the reasons this sort of declaration is necessary. While you may feel no comparison between 1960 and 2020, most of your your female counterparts do.

    For the record, obviously, consent to photograph is unconstitutional and a very dangerous proposition.

  6. Carl Seibert at 9:20 pm

    Hello and thank you Mr. Burnett. I have been in awe of your abilities for a very long time.

    I signed the thing.

    Yes, some of the prose, especially in the preamble, is purple. Purple with the saturation up to +100. Absolutely agreed. And it’s “youthful” [eyerolling here] purple prose. But I try to tamp down my ageism, even when the kids are being silly.

    “Some of my best friends are young people!” “I don’t have an ageist bone in my body!” [Giggle]

    Given that I signed the document at a moment when police were demonstrating their political preferences by aiming to blind photojournalists with their “rubber bullet” guns, I was very much in the mood not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Something is better than nothing, I thought. I just re-read the BoR and unless I’m missing something, I stand by that trade assessment.

    >”the concept of including the issue of Consent from Subjects in Public spaces where for ages >there has been no expectation of privacy, and the potential ceding of the right of a free press >to operate using our own best judgment in our society, gives me the chills. ”

    This, on the other hand, is very, very, not OK, not covered by the “something is better than nothing” shield at all. Thing is though, I just read the BoR for the third time and the Code of Ethics for the zillionth, and I swear, I don’t find any language like that in either. If the NPPA has codified such a horrible idea, we have a serious problem and I need to burn my membership card. But I’m not panicking yet. I’m not feeling the threat. If I’m being a ninny here, please, please let me know.

    I HAVE lately seen thumbsuckers about the ethics of identifying protestors. I say “have seen” instead of “have read” because, honestly, who cares. We all know that if I photograph you throwing a Molotov cocktail or a tear gas shell in the middle of a public riot on a public street – no matter how much I agree with your ideology – I’m not going to alter a photo or my honest best-effort report on the event. Period. Again, no matter how much I love the ideology behind the act. I do believe we find something about this in the Code of Ethics. Maybe I’m just no fun, but I don’t see much point in re-litigating the core of our ethical beliefs. So I skipped those articles and saved myself from being wound up by them.

    Maybe in considering the basic ethics of our profession “settled law” I’m being naive, or being oblivious to an existential threat and doing a disservice to the profession. If so, again, please kick my butt into motion.

    I think perhaps – and sincerely hope – that you may be overreacting a bit to some unfortunate (OK, egregiously childish) writing muddying up a well-intended effort.

    And after a nearly fifty-year career prostituting art in one way or another, I find my promotion to “lens-based worker” pretty darn amusing.

    -Carl

  7. john Andrews at 1:02 pm

    Are you going down with the ship, or taking a spot in the life boat? Is it “women & children first, or now only children first? Or…is it now old people and children? Or maybe old people sacrifice, and go down with the ship? And what will it be tomorrow?

    Education has failed us. In the past, even those who skipped school learned school lessons, via assimilation, using open minds and observation skills. Those lessons included early consideration of situational challenges, prompting thoughts and behaviors that are later aligned with “ethics” documented by adults working around the edges of industries.

    It’s the same now, except the edges of industry are focused on power, and operating mostly sans education (often fueled by dogma).

    “The Cult of Personality and Influencers will put the last nail in the coffin..” is on point but does it matter? The right move is to quit paying dues. The organization not only no longer represents your interests, but actively opposes them, using your energy (money) against you.

    Doesn’t failure deserve consequences? Or are you enabling?

    In photojournalism, the old ways can’t survive, and new ways are emerging driven by clever, brilliant, and eager individuals adapting technology & innovating. Those individuals are not active members. Today’s photographers fighting to control professional associations of photographers & photojournalists will clearly be left behind.

    Photography/photojournalism is dead! Long live (image-based non-fiction?).

    Nobody told the poorly-educated, low self-awareness, often pathologically altruistic young people in the cult of victimhood, who don’t listen anyway. The rest signing on to the absurdity simply don’t care enough, and are willing to see what happens as these new young doers man the lifeboats of the old photojournalism, yelling at the stormy ocean, commanding it to calm down so they can steer in a particular dream direction…Maybe it’ll work?

    Oops I used “man the lifeboats”. So cancel me. That is the priority, because that is the perceived threat, because…ignorance.

    The coming wave of applied imaging technology will wipe out virtually all of these organizations soon enough. High speed, high res, global high bandwith, in-camera image manipulations, AI-supported & crowd-sourced curation, and of course the classic “dissemination & utilization”…. aka publishing, all completely disrupted. Nobody will need yesterday’s practitioners, nor today’s advocates for some new power structure steering yesterday’s practitioners.

    The collective cannot survive change. Only INDIVIDUALS will transition, and their contributions will truly amaze all of us.

    Those individuals are not members of NPAA nor ASMP and don’t care about ethics of any trade. At best they care about the threat of Skynet and Terminators, Orwell’s 1984, and maybe privacy a little. But probably not enough. The advancing science and technology is too cool….and powerful. Like the disaffected Cult of Personality zombies, there are Cult of Technology zombies.

    Out of the wreckage will LATER emerge thinkers on the edges of the pioneering activities driving the emerging image-based non-fiction who, having watched the changes, understand the basis of the wildly different new setup, recognize its influence on humanity, and its potential to enrich society and perhaps change things for the better along the way…if properly steered. And they’ll associate to share thoughts.

    Or perhaps they’ll simply emerge because threats of pending bad consequences suggest things had better be steered by smart people with awareness and vision…or at least pondered before it’s too late. Or simply because there is a need for steering but no candidates for leadership… so an association might help develop some candidates. All of the reasons professionals for professional associations.

    The right thing to do is stop paying dues. Consequences.

    Also…pay more attention to what’s emerging, and the threats posed to free speech, free press, and privacy. It may be time to form a professional association of smart, aware people to make sure we can steer the new image-based non-fiction in the right directions for humanity.

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