CHINA. 2013 Mi Shixiu cradles He Quangui’s head as he’s struggling to breathe. He eventually recovers. © Sim Chi Yin
Covid-19: ethical considerations
As Covid-19 reduces in some countries and increases in others in a violently undulating wave around the globe, it’s helpful to look at the past as well as the present to explore the ethical issues facing photographers who are covering the pandemic.
Although debates have raged since the 1930s about what constitutes truth and authenticity in documentary photography, the basic questions remain the same. Is it acceptable for a photographer to intervene and create a scenario which fits into her view of what the photograph should show? Is it acceptable, through the manipulation of a scene or by photoshopping an image, to increase its visual impact for the viewer? For photojournalists there is an additional ethical issue to consider – when faced with war, poverty and suffering, should the photojournalist solely capture the images despite witnessing deep suffering, thus maintaining their objectivity, or should they intervene for the good and so alter the nature of the relationship with their subject? To do so changes their role from observer, to friend, supporter or saviour.
This tension is central to coverage of Covid-19. The images of sufferers in the Press are mainly people in hospital beds, dehumanised by hospital gowns and the apparatus of continuing life – oxygen masks, intravenous drips. Or those where relatives have convinced the authorities to let them hold their loved ones’ hands in their final moments of life. Or long lines of coffins. Or people in care homes, vulnerable, waiting for the virus to reach them. These are the victims of Covid-19. There has not yet been time for images of resistance and resilience against this silent enemy. The images of resistance have emerged from other, linked enemies, racism and brutality. An early sign of the latent effects of the coronavirus is how its spread around the world has been replicated by the spread of dissent, demonstrations and mainly peaceful anger.
So far, female photojournalists on Instagram, have brought us pictures of the world created by the virus which are often connected with their previous interests and approach. During lockdowns around the world, their coverage has been local, and principally street-based. Polly Braden in the UK returned to the centre of London and showed its deserted streets which have transformed the city into an eerie filmset, post-apocalypse. Rena Effendi also depicts deserted, ‘eerily quiet’ scenes of Istanbul, capturing the sites from which she notices the new sounds of the city – seagulls and the lapping waters of the Bosporus strait. And Fatemeh Behboudi in Iran shows women in masks in the street and at work. In the immediate situation, with access limited and travel curtailed, these images show how different cities are affected and reveal a common experience for people across the world: one of deserted streets, masks and isolation. For this immediate response, Instagram is the perfect distribution mechanism. The photographer’s gaze captures our day-to-day experience. The ethical considerations are little challenged.
To explore some of the deeper issues, we need to look backwards, to Sim Chi Yin’s Dying to Breathe project (2015) where she filmed the terminally-ill He Quangui over an extended four-year period. Chi Yin had made contact with his family in a remote part of China to document his illness and death from the disease silicosis. Initially seen as just another journalist who would leave once she had got the images she wanted, she was drawn closer to the family when He Quangui suddenly became seriously ill.
In ethical terms, Chi Yin pushed the barriers hard. Raising money from an NGO and travelling from Singapore to take him to hospital, the surgery she facilitated extended his life by another four years. As a frequent visitor to his home, Chi Yin became a lifeline to the wider world, and formed a strong and close relationship with He Quangui and his wife. This enabled her to capture intimate images of their lives. For instance, she was there filming shortly after he tried to commit suicide, and she documented the ongoing love story between the two of them. Because of Chi Yin’s intervention, He Quangui became more than a migrant worker who had contracted silicosis in China’s goldmines; he represented the suffering of the six million Chinese workers who have that deadly disease. Supported by the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, Chi Yin covered this tragic story in a short film and photo essay which have been widely shown at film festivals and in exhibitions around the world, revealing the effect of silicosis
Ethically, Chi Yin’s relationship with He Quangui and his family overturned any suggestions of objectivity and challenged academic discussions of whether the photographer’s framing of the image distorts the final outcome. She was fully and totally involved in his dying years. What did this give us? A greater understanding of the effect of silicosis, of the fate of migrant workers, of the resilience of the human spirit, and the love that one person can have for another no matter what their situation. The negative side is that by intervening, Chi Yin extended He Quangui’s life (and suffering) and set in train a series of incidents (the jealousy of their neighbours, more suffering for his family as his dying was protracted). These are serious considerations. And the point is that it’s impossible to know what is the right course of action to take from an aesthetic and humanitarian perspective. Can you ignore suffering by professional distancing? Where does our humanity begin and end? Did the end justify the means?
This is a question that photojournalists capturing the effects of Covid will need to engage with. Sim Chi Yin’s depiction of He Quangui is far removed from the hospital images which have filled our screens for the last few months showing isolated victims surrounded by medical paraphernalia. The next steps of capturing the effects of the virus will lead to new ethical challenges.
Fati Abubakar from Nigeria, who has documented the impact of Boko Haram in her local community is driven by showing the triumph of humanity over suffering. With as yet low numbers of Covid-19 sufferers in her area she anticipates her response: ‘I would challenge stereotypes of victimhood by bringing stories of community builders; people such as doctors, nurses, aid workers, governors, policemen, drivers, teachers, traders, farmers and many more people who are working tirelessly for their communities. That resilience for me is always of paramount importance to showcase. It gives us hope and keeps me going as a photojournalist; that despite all this pain, someone out there to trying to overcome, survive this and help others. It is called ‘suffering and smiling’ through all things in Nigeria.’
The ethical issues will be tested, as photo stories are created about the impact of the virus on communities and individuals. How do you show the human impact of Covid-19 without intervention? What are your responsibilities as a photographer? How do you dig deep into this aspect of the human condition without jeopardising authenticity? And how can you pass down to future generations the true narratives of the months when the world paused? One day, Covid-19 will disappear, maybe not completely but it will pass, and people will quickly want to move on beyond this period in human life. When the chaos, fear and fragmentation fades, we will be left with stories. And to tell the stories we will need the most powerful and revealing images of its effects, who suffered, and the way in which society responded, in order to challenge reductive, news-driven representations of our reality.
Part I of Jane’s series can be found here.