Photojournalist: Know Thyself
May 2008

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

"Shoot with your heart" is advice that professional photojournalists commonly offer aspiring visual storytellers.

That guideline emphasizes the important role that emotion plays in photojournalism. Proof that the professionals follow their own advice is evident in award-winning photographs. Who can look at Nick Ut's photo of the naked, napalmed and terrified Vietnamese girl without feeling horror and sympathy? Try suppressing the feeling of celebration in Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1945 photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square after hearing the news that the war was over.

We recognize excellence when we see it. More to the point, we feel it.

Good photographs convey the emotion of the subject or evoke an emotion in the viewer. Excellent photographs do both.

But just how does an aspiring photojournalist approach the dictum to shoot with the heart? The answer is deeply rooted in moral philosophy, and some soul-searching is necessary before this simple-sounding advice can be successfully applied. The key to understanding the role of emotion in stories is to understand oneself.

The most important question to ask in this case is: "What is my fundamental belief about humans as humans?" On one hand, we can view humans as autonomous, independent moral agents with rights and duties. Western moral thinkers have long advised us to do so. We willingly make familiar assumptions about the importance of independence, autonomy and reason when we engage in justice-based moral thinking.

But, recognizing that humans cannot live independently and by reason alone, some philosophers have more recently called for a care-based theory of ethics, one that highlights interdependence rather than independence. They argue that humans must live in relation to one another in order to survive. Care-based moral philosophers advise us that empathy and emotion play important roles in our moral lives.

Empathy is our ability to understand the emotions that others feel in response to circumstances and situations. It involves putting ourselves in the place of "the other," to try to understand the other's feelings. Understanding, reacting to and accounting for the feelings of others helps shape the way we live our lives.

The ethic of care has important implications for photojournalists trying to tell the story as completely as possible.

The photojournalist must try to recognize and understand a subject's emotion or lack of it. Emotional cues are often quite subtle.

The photojournalist must be able to capture those emotional cues. Technical expertise, including the knowledge of lighting, framing and shutter speed, enables the photojournalist to capture "the moment," but without the ability to recognize the cues, there will be no perceptible "moment" for the photographer.

Finally, the photojournalist must be able to situate the emotional details within the appropriate context. He or she draws on social, political, moral and cultural knowledge for that context.

The ethic of care as applied to photojournalism does not mean stripping the emotional dimension out of the story and presenting it for its own sake, in order to play on or manipulate the emotions of others. Nor does it mean that photojournalists should depict a murderer in a positive light, or concentrate on stories about fuzzy ducklings or whether the iced tea in the refrigerator is deadly.

The ethic of care as applied to photojournalism suggests the willingness of the photographer to see things from the other's vantage point. The capacity to empathize allows the photojournalist to grasp the meaning that the story has for the story's key players, for the viewers and for the members of the larger society.

Empathy enables the photojournalist to get closer to representing the truth of the situation and the people in it. The proper use of emotion allows the photojournalist to tell a more complete story. He or she must depict the emotion accurately and fairly.

The viewer can then decide whether to take the next step to right a wrong, correct an injustice, or simply enjoy the moment.

Shooting with the heart is shorthand for saying that the photojournalist must be open to the feelings of others, including the viewers, and to what a particular situation means to the others.

Without the ability to read, to understand and to capture emotion, a photojournalist might create pictures that are technically good or even great.

But the visual communication will never rise to the level of excellence.

To accomplish that, the aspiring photojournalist must listen to the pros. "Shoot with your heart."

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.