The Ethics of Photography

The Ethics of Photography

Beyond all kinds of photography, photojournalism’s position is a little tricky. Unlike photography in fine art, it has limited aesthetic values. Different from cinematography and advertising photography, this is not an easy way to make money as a business. Besides those biases, I still appreciate photojournalists’ commitments to the truth. The art of news photos is the art to record the reality.

To explain the functions of press photography as an art form inspired by Bell Hooks, I select one famous but controversial news photo as an example to show how art works evoke further possibilities and discussions among the public. Specifically, this photo functions “as a force that promotes development of critical consciousness” (as cited in Foss, Foss & Trapp, 2002, p. 280) towards the ethics of photography.

This photo is called The Starving of Sudan. Kevin Carter, an award-winning South African photojournalist, took this photo in March 1993 on his trip to Sudan as a photojournalist. The picture features a starving Sudanese girl. She was so hungry that she collapsed on her way to a feeding center. Wearing a white necklace, her black body curled up on the ground. Keeping her head down, she used her thin arms and legs to support her whole her whole body. At the same time, a vulture was stood in the near distance, watching this little girl. Seeing from the vulture’s stern and starving eyes, most people seems to assume the vulture was waiting for a good time to eat her.


Image retrieved from

After the photo was first published in New York Times on 26 March 1993, it suddenly came into the public’s focus. The combination of a weak human and a starving animal made a real reduction of Sudan’s hostile environment, and further discuss human’s relations to animals. Human are not privileged compared to animals when they are in the same bad environment. They can be the same vulnerable under the control of the nature. This photo also let people realize children as the innocent victims suffering from famine and civil wars within a weak country and discuss how people outside Sudan can help them.

Besides those anticipated positive feedbacks based on this photo, the start of a hot debate questioning the ethics of photographers changed the whole story. For the first time, the public realized the positions or identities of photographers involved an environment can be seen through a photo and cannot be ignored.

Thousands of people asked the fate of that girl in the photo, and asked Carter what he did to the girl. There are different versions of Carter’s story behind this image. The most possible version is that he just carefully watched the girl until the vulture went away as he was informed that journalists were not allowed to touch or have other direct contacts with local people to avoid any infections.

No matter what the true story is, there is no doubt that Carter did not do any positive and effective actions on that weak girl. With the pressure of public opinions and other further depressions, he committed suicide a few months after this photo won Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

Although this is tragedy, people can learn a lot beyond the photo itself from this photographer and his story. As what I concluded, immersion is the main way of this photo for people to further expand the meaning of a photo in a larger theme.

The combination of a weak girl and a vulture emphasizes the vulnerability of children in Sudan. Empathy is only on the awareness level; viewers also immerse themselves in the photo further into the action level. They begin to reflect themselves if they see those Sudan children what they can do. They imagine they are the photographer at that time in the same spot watching this little girl and the vulture. They begin to question the ethics of the photographer. Why he did not send food or water to her? Why did he just observe her in a safe distance? What is the position of a photographer in a specific environment? And what are the relations between a photographer and his subjects? Whether to shoot a good attracting photo or the further efficient action is their final goal?

As viewers try to identify themselves as photographers, they begin to understand the paradox of a photographer’s position between an insider and an outsider. Everyone can be a photographer in his or her life. People observe and experience things in their lives. Sometimes they have nothing to do but just watching. Sometimes they do a lot but they forget to record and look back. As life photographers, we keep balancing between getting involved in or just staying back. And only in this way can we keep moving.


Carter, K. (Photographer). (1993). The Starving of Sudan [Photograph], Retrieved Apr 15, 2014, from:

Foss, S. K., Foss, K. A., & Trapp, R. (2002). Contemporary perspectives on rhetoric. (3rd ed., pp. 280). United States of America: Waveland Press.


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