The ethics of photographing grief

by Jeremy Boo

On the front page of The New Paper was a searing photograph of a mother who lost her two sons to the car accident. The grief, the howl, the emotional breakdown in her red-yellow McDonalds uniform was explicit. It was no doubt good photojournalism. But it turned a moment of grief into a caricature of a freak show, and the mother, into a medium of emotional catharsis not dissimilar to tragic Korean dramas.

I asked on Facebook: Did the photographer ask her for her permission or at least speak to her to know her as a person? Or is she just a subject of a powerful, compelling photograph; another tick in the achievements-accomplished list?

A viewer shared it with Mr Tay Kay Chin, a part-time lecturer at  Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and a former Photo Editor of The Straits Times, who then wrote a note about photographing grief on his personal Facebook wall.

Mr Tay may or may not be responding to my Facebook status as his note does not directly address my questions. It does, however, reveal an insight into the workflow and culture of news publications in Singapore.

What I had wanted to put across was how the photographer seem to have capitalised a person’s tragedy for personal and professional gain; in this context, the technical strength of the photograph is more unfortunate than redeeming. This is why I asked if the photographer had bothered to speak with the mother and to know the mother as person, or is she mere means to another fantastic, career-advancing, ego-boosting photograph?

Of course, like Mr Tay, I am not privy to the photographer’s thoughts and actions. He might have actually spoken to the mother (even though initial reports mentioned neither her relationship nor her name). On hindsight, I should have written to the photographer to clarify.

But it is now too late.


In the later part of his note, Mr Tay raised several points:

  1. Photographers are expected to do their jobs well. That includes taking the best possible photographs.
  2. Few dare to state their opinion on whether to publish the photographs. Many prefer to leave this decision to their editors.
  3. The photographer who took the particular photograph can choose not to.
  4. But (2) and (3) carry with them the risk of career damage.
  5. To prevent (4), news organisations should have a clear code of ethics about such issues.
  6. Photographs of graphic scenes can be useful.
  7. If he was the mother, he would probably be upset.
  8. He does not think the photograph would help the family heal but it might move the hearts of many.

Mr Tay believes that the photographer did not do the wrong thing simply because the photographer is merely carrying out his job. (He did not say if he believed that the photographer did the right thing.) But giving your best for your job does not necessarily mean that you are doing the right thing or even not doing the wrong thing. Surely, the Nazi soldiers in concentration camps who did their best could not be said to have done either.

A false dichotomy was also presented: Either take the photograph/do your job well or lose your job. It cannot be denied that unless one does one’s job well, one is at risk of losing it. How shall we define ‘well’ then? Could the photographer have taken another photograph that is as powerful, less intrusive, but consequently more difficult to achieve? Even if he had no other option, this still does not justify not attempting to know the subject as a person. To be clear, I am not necessarily against the publishing of the photograph. My questions were: Did the photographer get to know Madam Suliani Ang when he took that photograph? When he took that photograph, were his feelings that of accomplishment as a photojournalist or were his intentions that of a sincere attempt to convey the gravity of the accident? Even if he had both good and egoistic intentions, which one of them was stronger? If the egoistic intention was stronger, then the photographer had simply capitalised on Madam Ang’s grief for personal gain. If his primary intentions were indeed to convey the gravity of the accident, then is there a better, less intrusive way to convey it? If there is not, then the publishing of the photograph may be justified.

This matter about the photographer’s intent brings me to my next point: the weighing of harms.

Mr Tay alluded to this when he said that graphic photographs can serve useful purposes too. I do not disagree. Mr James Nachtwey, a photojournalist I deeply respect, has taken countless of war photographs, many of them graphic. From my meagre experience as a photojournalist and a journalist, I have too documented immense emotional trauma and profound moments of grief.

Therein lies an important distinction: do the benefits of a published photograph outweigh the harm it causes? I am fortunate to have avoided confronting this question so far as my subjects have expressly given permission to publish their pictures and accounts; my subjects have in this sense either agreed that the benefit of publishing their experiences outweigh any possible harm or they were prepared to accept any possible harm.

In many other circumstances, procuring permission is either not necessary or not possible. There might even be circumstances that permit the publishing of photographs against the wishes of the subject. War photography, for instance, do not lend much freedom to its subjects, soldiers and civilians, to refuse. The publicity of the cruelty, the senselessness, the torture, the bloodshed, the needless grief so that war might be brought to a sooner end can justify such intrusion.

Returning to the photograph of Madam Ang, what purpose does this photograph serve? Mr Tay has said that if he were Madam Ang, he would probably feel upset about the photograph. Does the benefit of this photograph outweigh the additional grief it might cause to Madam Ang? Is the moving of many hearts sufficient justification for the photograph?

If it is not, then surely the photograph should have never been published.


Postscript: What stood out most, for me, in Mr Tay’s note was how media organisations in Singapore do not seem to have a code of ethics regarding the documentation (at least, visually) of grief. He also described how most photographers, justifiably or otherwise, struggle to state their opinion on whether their own work should be published. I find both instances utterly astonishing.

Further Reading: What it feels like to be photographed in a moment of grief