Many non-profit organizations publicize the work they do
using photographs of the people they are helping.
They show what they do, who they help, and
it helps them in fund-raising.
On the other hand, other non-profits have policies where no photographs
are to be taken of any recipients of their help.
Which is the ethical action here?
The photographic portrayal of any individual which
denies their dignity or puts a blemish on their reputation
can create huge controversy.
This is not a new.
Here's a story from U.S. history.
In 1936, the writer John Steinbeck was commissioned to write several articles about California migrant farm workers for the San Francisco News. These migrants were typically Americans who had fled the midwest to California, when their crops were devastated by the dust bowl climate of the 1930s. To accompany Steinbeck's text, photos were taken by Horace Bristol, staff photographer for Life magazine. Other documentary photos were also published, such as the now-famous photo by Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936).
Migrant Mother, 32-year-old Florence Thompson with 3 of her 7 children,
Nipomo, California, 1936. Photo credit: Dorothea Lange
Then Steinbeck wrote the fictional novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Instead of photos, it was accompanied by illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton.
|Benton's illustrations for The Grapes of Wrath show the plight of the California migrant farm worker.|
The Grapes of Wrath was heavily criticized, denounced as "obscene sensationalism," for not being realistic to the migrant's situation; the Associated Farmers group accused Steinbeck of fictional fabrication. It was banned in Bakersfield, California, Kansas City, Missouri, and Buffalo, New York. It was ordered burned in St. Louis. Hollywood used the publicity, making it into a film version, starring young Peter Fonda.
The photographs and illustration and film scenes
linger in the memory, maybe longer and easier than the writing text.
The "dust bowl" migrants of the 1930s will always be remembered with these visuals.
How and when do we choose to portray the visual of a suffering human?
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