Project 1: Eyewitnesses?

The brief:

Look up some of the examples mentioned above online – or any other news photographs of emergencies.

Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Write a list of the arguments for and against.

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines the word objective as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions; unbiased; fair”.

I believe pictures and by pictures I am referring to documentary and photo journalistic images are for the most part made as objectively as possible. In a documentary photography class I took a few years ago the students were given a handout with the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics to follow. The Code of Ethics can be seen here.  In it photographers are admonished to be accurate in their representation of the event they are photographing, not to manipulate a situation so that it blows into a “news worthy event”, not to manipulate images (no Photoshopping to remove a pole behind someone’s head even), not to pay sources or subjects or accept favours and so on. Photographers are severely censored if it is discovered that they have manipulated their images. The same cannot be said of conceptual or fine art photos where many images have been Photoshopped to remove or add components, layered with other images to produce special effects and other such manipulations. Notwithstanding this, there will always be something of a photographer in his/her photos. The same incident recorded by five photographers will be different images, have different points of view and different angles. I think once the photograph is viewed by the viewer though, we tend to take a subjective view on the image, imposing our knowledge,  and personal views. So in summary I think that while photographs are made as objectively as possible with regards to the story, the photographer cannot help but be subjective with regards to the way he responds to the situation in front of him.

I have read in David Bate’s book, Photography The Key Concepts (p 53) that photographs that offer a “neutral camera view”, like those portraits of August Sander where the subjects faces are almost expressionless are classed as ‘objective’. Other examples that he cites are the work of John Thomson in The Streets of London and Eugene Atget’s The Parisian. Bate calls this ‘tripod-photography’. The photos where split-second expressions and movements are captured fall into the ‘subjective’ category (‘shutter photography’).

I have chosen as my first image one of the xenophobia attacks which broke out in South Africa towards the end of April 2015. It is a brutal image, showing a knife attack on a Mozambican national in the Alexandra township near Johannesburg. He was stabbed in the heart and left  on the street. In the background residents just stand and look on. He later died of his injuries in hospital. The photographer’s point of view is extremely close to the incident and in a fast moving incident as this (the attack lasted about two minutes) I don’t believe there is any time to be objective, especially if the photographer’s own life was at risk. I think objectivity would require a bit of forethought and planning – clearly not applicable here. Because of the photographer’s proximity and the fact that we can see the assailant’s expression we are drawn into the frame as if we are there too. What we are left wondering though is how many other people were standing watching out of frame, were there other assailants rushing to take part in this attack. If we look at the series of images taken by photographer James Oatway, we see that there were indeed more people and more assailants, and that it was a very fast moving scenario.

Xenophobia - Alexandra Township

The next image taken in October 2014 shows reservist Nathan Cirillo of Hamilton, Ontario receiving CPR minutes after having been shot by terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a recent convert to Islam turned jihadist.  A fellow soldier kneels in his blood trying to help him.  Cirillo was a honour guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial just steps away from the Canadian Parliament Buildings. He was shot in the back twice at point blank range. Sadly honour guards carry unloaded firearms while on duty. Therefore, the three other guards also on duty were unable to return fire on the terrorist. The remains of an unidentified Canadian solider who succumbed during the First World War lie interred in the tomb. The Unknown Soldier honours more than 116,000 Canadian who gave their lives in the fight for peace and freedom, whether soldiers, air force, merchant marine or navy. It also pays homage to those who lost their lives in battle in past, present and future conflicts. There is an extreme sadness to this image in that a soldier is killed in cold blood while guarding those who have fought for freedom. Because the scene is more stationary than the one above, the photographer would have had a few seconds to consider his position and find the better vantage point for the image. However, the photographer’s point of view places the viewer outside the frame. The main subjects have their backs turned to us and the two faces we do see are engaged with their colleagues. This state is echoed by the bystanders in the distance. They too are looking on, but their view is blocked by the marble tomb. The scene almost appears to be frozen in time. For me this image almost straddles the definitions of objectivity and subjectivity.

Shooting on Parliament Hill, Ottawa October 2014

The next image was taken in June 2011 and went viral throughout the world. It was taken during the Stanley Cup (ice hockey) riots. After losing to the Boston Bruins team in the final play offs, the Vancouver fans went beserk. They overturned police cars, set them alight, smashed windows, and looted department stores. The damage to the downtown core was tremendous. I remember wondering what on earth the couple was thinking when I first saw this image the day after the riots. This photo was given various captions of a couple making love while riots took place around them, all of which were incorrect. In an interview with the couple on local TV, the young man said that they had been knocked down by the riot police and that he was just comforting his girlfriend with a kiss, before helping her up again.  Admittedly it is one of those images where the back story is crucial to the correct understanding of the situation. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the riot police in front and behind the couple in tender embrace creates an ambiguity to the image that begs further investigation. There is a story of peace and war in this image. Although the photographer seems to be a distance from the subjects, the looming figure of the riot policeman with his baton and protective shield in the foreground places the viewer in the frame. There is a lot of action going in in the frame – the riot police running towards a fire, the policeman approaching on the crowd (unseen) in the foreground with a threatening stance and the kissing couple in the middle of the road, all meeting the criteria of the subjective camera view.

Couple kissing during Stanley Cup Riots 2011


Bate, David, (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

Laing, Aislinn, The Telegraph (2015). Mobs kill at least seven foreigners after Zulu king says South Africa should be purged of ‘lice’. [online] National Post: Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

National Post staff, (2011). Photos: Riots, fire, destruction after Vancouver’s loss [online]. Natonal Post: Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Natonal Post staff and the Canadian Press (2014) Images from the Ottawa shooting that left the Canadian capital in chaos [online]. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Tromp B, Olifant N and Savides M, (2015). Kill thy neighbour: Alex attack brings home SA’s shame [online]. Times Live: South Africa. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Veteran Affairs Canada. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [online]. Government of Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]


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