To Shock or to Sanitize: Photojournalism and Pushing Ethical Boundaries

To Shock or to Sanitize: Photojournalism and Pushing Ethical Boundaries

October 2013

AUTHOR: Amanda Labelle



To ask whether photojournalism at times crosses an ethical line is perhaps too vague a question. The answer would require a set evaluation of ethics and would have to consider the merit of what is being documented. The issues with digital manipulation and misrepresenting the truth are obvious and don’t need to be discussed here. What I will discuss is the pushing of boundaries through the representation of graphic or shocking images and will inquire into when an image exploits the pain of others, when the reality of that pain is instead sanitized, and what suffices for telling the whole truth.


One influential piece of criticism on photographically capturing violence is Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977), wherein she describes photography as “grandiose,” “treacherous,” “imperial,” “voyeuristic,” “predatory” and “addictive” and further notes that the camera “may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit,” and “assassinate,” all of which can be “conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” To Sontag, the act of photography violates and invades the privacy of individuals and the individual in question becomes a spectacle: others are now privy to this individual’s pain and suffering. What is more, others are stimulated by the tragedy they see before them, which is why Sontag goes as far as to describe the voyeurism of photography as pornographic.

Is this window into the pain of others always such an intrusion though? After all, the photojournalistic mission is to capture reality and convey the suffering and struggles of humanity. In contrast to Sontag, Alex Levac – a 2005 winner of the Israel Prize in Photography and long time photographer for Haaretz – notes that as a veteran photographer he always made the utmost effort to evoke “thought, feeling and empathy” for his subjects, and that his photographs “each in [their] own way, succeeded in conveying to the observer the suffering of others.”


Indeed I do agree that we have an inclination towards violence in the West for the sake of entertainment or enjoyment: violence is the theme of many video games, television shows, and movies; herein our desensitization to and enjoyment of violence does become this sort of pornographic exchange that Sontag refers to. However, there comes a point when one has to decipher whether something is graphic for the sake of being graphic, or graphic for the sake of telling the truth in a story. This circles back to my initial question: at what point do we sanitize the truth by not showing the horror of events, and is this sanitization obscuring the truth?

I can agree that individual cases of violence and the intrusion into an individual’s pain and suffering or last moments is not necessary to portray a news story, particularly with something like a tragic accident. Accidents are too much a part of our current reality that we don’t need to see the victims’ faces to identify with the pain and loss. On the larger scale though, seeing the mass graves of victims of genocide or the images of children from Sierra Leone with their limbs amputated – a scare tactic devised by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel faction during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) as testament to  their slogan “the future is in your hands;” anyone who was overtaken by the RUF and refused to kill on command had their hands severed to scare children into forced loyalty to the rebellion as child soldiers – these images of pain and suffering do not exploit the suffering individuals, but expose the corruption, horrors, and shame of the country’s leaders. It also should expose the alliances with foreign countries that allow these atrocities to continue, namely it should point out our own involvement, however far removed (trading guns to conflicted areas fueling the war to keep the price minerals for electronics, conflict diamonds, and other precious resources low), perpetuates the horror. We trade in blood, and those who buy the devices that are made with these traded goods are just as guilty as those pulling the trigger or wielding the machete – it is Western consumerism that keeps the violence going by providing a lucrative market that keeps these channels of trade open for business.


One might ask, ‘but why does it need to be a photograph, wouldn’t the written story suffice?’ Susie Linfield describes the reason perfectly in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010); Linfield notes that photographs are so good at making us see cruelty “because photographs bring home to us the reality of physical suffering with a literalness and irrefutability that neither literature nor painting can claim.” Moreover, shock is part of the objective. Images of these maimed and broken bodies should be something that we see and we should be immediately outraged and desire change. When things occur ‘over there’ or far enough removed so that they are out of sight and out of mind, an ‘us-them’ dichotomy is generated and our ability to sympathize is reduced. There is a discord between what we know and what we feel. Seeing an image of the violence that we ‘know’ is occurring elsewhere brings the pain and suffering of real human beings in front of our eyes; it forces us to really see the truth and we are then more susceptible to feel something.


Photojournalism may at times seem harsh, but it forces us to take a harsh look at our world and ourselves. The images of bodies maimed and mutilated by war or of guns in the hands of child soldiers are not cold and unfeeling, but rather are images brimming with pain and sorrow that the photojournalist wants an audience to acknowledge and perhaps understand. It is from this platform of sympathy and understanding that the seeds for change can be cultivated and grow.



Info Sources:

Hough, Leslie. “A study of peacekeeping, peace-enforcement and private military companies in Sierra

Leone,” African Security Review 16.4, Institute for Security Studies. Web. 25 Sep. 2013.

Levac, Alex. “Photography / The role of photojournalism in a violent world: Pushing back at efforts to

discredit photojournalism, Susie Linfield restores the profession’s lost dignity.”,

April 3rd 2011.Web. 23 Sep. 2013. role-of-photojournalism-in-a-violent-world-1.353824

Linfield, Susie. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, U of C P. 2010. Web. 23 Sep.


Sontag, Susan. On Photography.  New York: Picador. 2001. Print.



Photo sources:

The Diamond War

JDomination Goes to Africa 

BBC News

Sentencing of Taylor sets precedent – FT.

Obsidian Wings: Good News From Africa: Take 2

Presentation of the country