Covering the 2020 Thai Protests: The Ethics of Photojournalism

This is a two-part article series initially conceived in response to this South China Morning Post article, but has become about much more: how do we as journalists cover pivotal moments like Thailand’s 2020 uprising? 

This first article surveys the ethics of photojournalism from an academic perspective, while the second article highlights the practice of photojournalism and the lived realities of photojournalists covering Thailand’s 2020 protests. 

Exhibit 1. “Not a single scene is staged,” Leni Riefenstahl famously said of her Hitler-comissioned film Triumph of the Will, “Everything is genuine…It is history – pure history.” In some ways, Riefenstahl was correct: the 700,000 attendees, which Riefenstahl chronicled, really did attend the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. 

But the Nazis staged the rally with the expectation that it would appear in Riefenstahl’s commissioned ‘documentary’. As Susan Sontag argued in her searing 1975 review of Reifenstahl’s work: “The document…is no longer simply the record of reality; “reality” has been constructed to serve the image.” 

Scene of Leni Riefenstahl’s film ” The Triumph of the will ” (1935): 100000 members of LIMITED COMPANIES and of SS past in magazine by Hitler during the Nazi congress of Nuremberg. ©Roger-Viollet / The Image Works

Exhibit 2. In 1991, French philosopher and social theorist Jean Paul Baudrillard wrote a sensationally titled essay: “The Gulf War is not really taking place” (La guerre du Golfe a-t-elle vraiment lieu ?) His point was not that there was no military action taking place in Kuwait and Iraq – rather, that the atrocities and Iraqi civilian deaths caused by America’s overwhelming firepower were hidden by American media, the bombing masqueraded as a war in which “fighting did not really take place.” 

In the Gulf, the aptly named “Theatre of War” had been transformed into a simulacrum of war: a virtual event that did not represent realities on the ground, but rather served a variety of political purposes on all sides. The Americans prevented another Vietnam by not invoking their citizens’ pity. The Iraqis did not have to admit to severe weaknesses in aerial defense. 

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In the world of photojournalism, there is no straightforward relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘representation.’ Per Susan Sontag, there are ‘realities’ altered for the purpose of representation, where journalists and photojournalists affect framing on the ground. Per Baudrillard, there are ‘representations’ which are alterations of reality. Just as Kant theorized that all nuomena was inevitably altered into phenomena by our senses, journalism – like most other things – is inevitably subjective. 

Journalism during the 2020 Thai protests

During the last five months of the 2020 Thai protests, the news cycle has moved rapidly and there has been little time for reflection on such questions. 

Photojournalists work fifteen hour days, sometimes consecutively, as protesters convene in the thousands day after day. In newsrooms across Thailand, editors are running on fumes. 

That may explain the heated reaction to a South China Morning Post article, which (clumsily) attempted to ask such questions in the vein of Sontag or Baudrillard. 

“Seeing these images and realising the manipulation of the protests’ narrative begs the question: did these events really occur? Or are they mere interpretations of photographs?” writes author Marielle Descalsota. 

To the many photojournalists working the Thai protests who have been battered by water cannons and whose eyes have been stung by tear gas, the question seems a slap in the face.

But Sontag and Baudrillard’s questions predate Descalsota’s flaw’ed article, and offer the kind of critique about the media that should be discussed and debated. 

How does media create certain realities on the ground, and what might the media’s current framing fail to capture? 

Creating realities on the ground

Academic Edoardi Siani, a cultural anthropologist who studies Thailand, has followed Thai politics closely since the early 2000s. According to Siani, “The current protest…is a battle also fought in the media. Every war since the Spanish-American war was fought on media, but there’s a very strong element of media that I think characterizes this protest and this fight.”

Across the world, Thailand has seen the fragmentation of it’s media landscape. The digitization of news leading to the emergence of smaller, faster-moving online-oriented media networks like The Standard, The Reporters or Prachathai. There is still demand for the longform journalism of old, but coverage of Thailand’s 2020 protests has been dominated by an emphasis on instantaneity: live-streams, live tweeted reports, breaking news retweeted from Thai activists’ accounts rather than from official government sources. 

Young pro-democracy protesters seem to know this, and understand how to use it in their favor. 

Every single protest has been characterized by a viral, incredibly visual ‘meme’ – from Hamtaro to Harry Potter to the yellow rubber duck – that can capture the attention of the Twitterverse, garnering thousands of retweets in an instant. This is not to say they are not meaningful – usually, the memes are loaded with local and global symbolism, and deep historical relevance. But the choice of such symbols is partly motivated by their eye-catching shareability. 

The green aliens that appeared at the November 25th pro-democracy protests in front of Siam Commercial Bank (initially arranged at the Crown Property Bureau) are one example of privileging shareability over meaning. 

Pakorn Porncheewangkul is the pro-democracy protest-goer who brings inflatable creatures to the protests. When asked why he brought the aliens, he replied casually: “มันกวนตีนดี” (“They just look annoying”). Yet, the aliens instantly went viral – some later attributing meaning to them, describing them as parodies on accusations of the pro-democracy protesters’ ‘foreign interference’. 

The medium by which the protests are made visible – namely, image-forward social media sites like Twitter or Facebook – inevitably shape the form of the protests themselves. This is a point made by Nick Nostitz, an experienced photojournalist who closely covered the 2008 – 2010 Red/Yellow shirt protests, until he was assaulted by PDRC supporters accusing him of being pro-Red Shirt in 2014. 

“Especially during protests, I often have the impression that there is at times an extremely unhealthy relationship between protesters and media, where media almost becomes an actor by driving a very selective almost activist narrative, and protesters drive the media and naturally try to control the narrative,” warns Nostitz, “Well, until the media moves onto the next big thing.”

Representations of Reality

Media drives reality, but also represents it – and representation is fraught with subjectivity. Part of the failure of the SCMP article was that it held photojournalists to a fictitious standard of objectivity, by claiming that there was a reality ‘out there’ that was being transformed by photojournalists’ subjective “manipulation of the protests’ narrative.”

“When you report about something you try and do it as truthful and as objective as possible, but of course it will always have an angle or focus,” says Florian Witulski, a German journalist whose work on the Thailand’s 2020 protests has regularly gone viral. 

Similarly, an anonymized veteran Thai journalist cautions: “I believe that there’s no such thing as 100% objective. I personally think that it’s more important to be impartial and non-partisan, that’s not the same as being objective. That’s to show the facts that you have to support why you’re telling this story in a specific way.”

However, the extent to which one stylizes narratives has always been a question for photojournalists, sitting as they do at the nexus of art and journalism. In his recent influential piece, ‘Plea for A New Photojournalism,” German photojournalism academic Dr. Felix Koltermann called for the rejection of aesthetics over content. Facts can be evaded in pursuit of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. 

One London-based academic argues (in a set of Facebook comments) that hyper-stylized narratives led to much of the vitriol following the burning of Central World as a consequence of a Red Shirt protest in 2010. 

“In fact, many compared the burning down of the Central World department store as “Thailand’s 9/11” – which Zizek has also theorised by employing Baudrillard,” he wrote. From the academic’s perspective, months – even years – of simplified, stylized representations of both Red and Yellow identities had collapsed lived realities into a simple moral universe supported by separate media environments. In the Yellow media environment, the violence of Central World was experienced in a different way – with visceral empathy for the building, and dehumanization of the violent Red Shirts. 

Nostitz argues that similarly simplified, hyper-stylized narratives are deployed today. 

“The framing of these protests in the media, isn’t that according to what is happening on the ground, or is it according to middle class discourse fields, and directed to the target audience?,” Nostitz points to some of these “crude” simplifications, such as the typification of the protests as a generational conflict, led by young students, when many especially older Red Shirts support these protests as well.

Current coverage to a large extent ignores class. “It isn’t just upper middle class students from ultra conservative families who are rebelling against their parents’ generation. You have a large number of protesters who come from red shirt families, who are not in a rebellion in issues with their families,” argues Nostitz. 

Most importantly, most coverage does not take into account the historical context of the protests. Stylized headlines like “The young protesters taking on the monarchy are changing Thailand for ever,” reported by Pravit Rojanaphruk for the Guardian, ignore an ongoing conversation about the monarchy that started in 2006 and hit a high in 2010, with ‘Uncle Statue’ spotted in a 2012 picture with a big sign criticizing the Article 112 Lese Majeste law. 

“[Today’s protest] is a development of a conflict that has existed before, those are the nuances which rarely get reported about and fall under the table for the sake of a narrative frame which I cannot agree with,” Nostitz concludes.

Paths Forward

In many ways, the difficulty of presenting nuanced narratives is a structural problem: photojournalists – many of whom are now freelance, given the ongoing demise of traditional media –  need to take photographs that are aesthetic, stunning, visually arresting to be successful. 

Similarly, journalists want to write stories that highlight the unprecedented nature of what is happening, even if that reads to the historian as sensationalist or inaccurate. This is even more the case if – as is the current case – journalists are more emotionally invested in one side of the ‘fight’.

“It’s inevitable that you do take a position, it’s inevitable that you get emotionally invested, yet on the other hand, that is why we have ethical guidelines in journalism and why we have to remind ourselves of them,” says Nostitz. 

But for him, “The discussion is the answer – there is no clear answer other than the discussion.”

Siani, drawing on his background as an anthropologist, highlights the importance of reflexivity: the academic practice of self-reflection, asking questions about your own craft. 

For Siani, the answer lies in embracing complex narratives. 

“I do not think that any objective observer is possible in this world, be it the journalist, photographer or the academic, so I have no problem with subjective photojournalism,” Siani says, “but I think that we need to strive for a narrative that is complex, always questioning our own perspective critically, so we do not slip into easy, simplistic unilateral narratives.”

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