on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Ethics in photography

Trust between photographer, subject and audience

Rafael Rojas

Following a career as an engineer, researcher and university lecturer he made a dramatic change of career as a nature and landscape photographer, his true passion and vocation. Today, he travels extensively in search of those fleeting moments when light and land combine to create something very special. His work has been awarded in many international photography competitions, including the prestigious Master Hasselblad Award, several First Prizes in the International Photography Awards (USA), Px3 Prix de la Photographie de Paris and Px3 People's Choice (France), Nature’s Best (USA), International Conservation Awards (USA),


The thorny issue of ethics and moral responsibilities in documentary photography, particularly in the case of photojournalism has been discussed many times. It has also created severe turmoil in the careers of long-established and respected photographers, who failed to comply with the expectations of the audience.

The reader might remember the polemic discovery of severe photoshop retouching in images of the former National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. The case exploded following a post by an Italian photographer, who spotted on some exhibited gallery prints severe visual inconsistencies in some of the images that led to thinking of substantial image manipulation. Further analysis led to discover that in many of McCurry images, people had been eliminated, compositions had been cleaned and backgrounds strongly modified. The photographer, under logical attack, first claimed his ignorance about the fact his images were severely retouched, pointing to his own assistant as the real culprit and firing him. Then, he changed his discourse, claiming that he had “artistic freedom” to manipulate his images at will, since, after all, his images were not to be understood as photo-journalism, but as fine art photography.

This last detail is of special interest to me. Beyond considerations of the dubious (or not) reasoning inherent in such claims, McCurry explanations brought under the limelight a number of barbed issues. McCurry, a photographer best known for his image “Afghan girl”, made his reputation as one of the photographers for National Geographic. His career was built on the basis of images made to document and represent the identity of certain cultures and societies, illustrating articles supposed to transmit truth, as the reputation of a publication like National Geographic would let us think. It can be easily understood that if the polemic would have taken place at the time when he was part of the staff of NG, surely enough heads would have rolled.

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