The Digital Journalist
Taking the Offensive
October 2003

by Peter Howe

It seems that a remark in my last column suggesting that the good people of Canada are not totally crazy about their southern neighbors has upset at least one of their number. I say at least one because to date I've only received one e-mail complaining about this aside, which I might add was intended not to be taken too seriously. However if the common wisdom, if you'll excuse the oxymoron, of print publishing applies to the web, (that for every one person who writes there are hundreds that didn't but would have), then I fear that there may be a small army who agrees with my correspondent. Either way I'm canceling all trips north of the border as a precautionary measure.

However the way that this reader expressed his displeasure was interesting. He said that he found my remarks "offensive." While this seemed to me to be a strong characterization of my fairly innocuous attempt at humor, I think that it highlights a problem that journalists, both photo and others, are increasingly facing. Our society is becoming more and more hesitant to upset anyone, and its effect upon our ability to communicate with each other in public forums is vampiric. Although this trend may have started as an honest and commendable attempt to protect vulnerable groups from cruel or insensitive commentary it has now reached a point where anyone putting fingers to the keyboard or lifting a camera to the eye is entering an ethical minefield, the net effect of which is often to corral expression and render it harmless. Furthermore the fact that nobody knows the rules of this new game increases the hazard. Like those awful jokes that inhabit the Internet, their source is anonymous. Who for instance decided that we should use the awkward terms waitperson or waitstaff instead of the perfectly serviceable waiter and waitress? How did they find out that waiters and waitresses didn't like being called waiters and waitresses? And how is it that to be offended seems to give the offendee the moral high ground and by implication exiles the offender to the pit of callousness? I realize that I'm posing more questions than supplying answers, but indulge me one more. How can we possibly have strong views or be passionate about anything without offending someone else?

The problem is different for a writer than for a photographer. I can go back and edit out the potentially offensive parts of this column before sending it off to Dirck. Apparently I don't, but I could. As photographers you don't have that luxury; you have to show what is there. You do, of course, have the option of not photographing anything that is controversial. This would restrict you to covering dog shows and school drama productions and your life would be pretty boring, and even then you would probably incur the wrath of the more extreme elements of PETA and some children's rights activists. The problem that photographers face is not the taking of controversial and therefore potentially offensive images, it's getting them published. We've just seen the results of the most intensely photographed war in history in which there were hardly any deaths or catastrophic wounds to judge from the images that were published in our magazines and newspapers. Certainly one of the reasons for this is that publications are faced with a readership that is becoming increasingly quick to take offense and which neither the publishers nor the advertisers upon whom they depend can risk alienating. This extends way beyond the subject of war and includes almost anything that is disturbing. We seem to be in an era of emotional isolationism in America in which anything that disturbs our fragile balance is deemed unacceptable. This seems to be in stark contrast to the period between the beginning of the depression and the end of the Second World War when there was no balance to preserve and the range of "acceptable" imagery was much wider. I'm not arguing for another depression so that we can revive the flagging fortunes of photojournalism, but something in the middle would be nice.

The way that things have changed in the last fifty or so years can best be illustrated with a non-photographic example. Time Magazine is well known for its Man of the Year, now appropriately Person of the Year, covers. In 1950 they did a Man of the Half Century issue, and gave the title to Winston Churchill. In 1999 as the new millennium approached Time was in the process of choosing a Person of the Century. This time Churchill was deemed to be an unacceptable candidate because in the words of managing editor Walter Isaacson "He opposed very condescendingly the notion of the civil rights movement, referred to suffragists in Britain in terms that were very rude, talked of Gandhi as being a half-naked fakir, and was fighting hard to keep the British empire together." Apart from betraying an appalling ignorance of the subject the statement also ignores Churchill's more than half century of public and international service, his extraordinary body of written work, the fact that he was one of the few individuals to hold high office in both World Wars, and of course the fairly significant fact that he almost single handedly saved our civilization. These were the reasons for which he was applauded by Time in 1950; his rudeness to Mr. Ghandi (and to many other people he could be very offensive) cost him Time's approval by the end of the century.

In photography we tend to compound the situation internally as well. Too often we denigrate the projects of our peers because some aspect of the work, or its motivation offends us. Because Sebastiao Salgado is a brilliant photographer, and also because both he and his wife are very savvy about business, he got well compensated for the epic work that he did recording the working conditions of manual laborers around the world. This immediately led to complaints from many members of our community that he was making money from the misery of the dispossessed. I suspect that many of the naysayers were the same people who grumble that you can't make a living out of documentary photography. It is ironical that the photographer who gave us the most complete documentation of worker exploitation at the end of the twentieth century should himself be accused of worker exploitation. He is in good company in this regard; such outstanding photographers as Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and other equally talented social documentarians have also been accused of being exploitative.

The American Heritage dictionary defines offense as: The act of causing anger, resentment, displeasure, or affront. All of the emotions listed within that definition are perfectly normal human reactions, so is there really anything wrong in being offended by someone's statement or photograph or painting? The answer of course is no, provided that in our offended state we are not dismissive, that we don't use our displeasure to block out that which disturbs us without consideration of the truth of the statement, photograph or painting. As photojournalists we are in an offensive profession because it often falls to us to bring back the news that others don't wish to see; we make our living by disturbing our fellow citizens, by stripping away the protective coating with which all of us try to shield ourselves. Even in a social climate where the messenger is often shot, both figuratively and sometimes literally, that is still the mission of the photojournalist. For it to be otherwise would be truly offensive.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor