Can Photojournalism ever be truly objective?

Fresh faces, school uniforms, fiery speeches, and the three-finger salute — these are the images we know well in 2020.

For the past six months, pro-democracy protests and political rallies have filled the streets of Thailand, led mainly by students and young progressives.

Whether directly or indirectly, everyone has felt its ripples.

Now officially coined as the 2020 Thai Political Protests, the movement has captured the public attention and making headlines across the globe. Images from the protests including the three-finger salute, protesters shielding off teargases and water cannons, yellow rubber ducks, or speaking, boldly, of what was once taboo, have been seen from major dailies in the west to political cartoons at home.

These events have also transpired at warp speed. Protest leaders and activists have been arrested and released, opposition and royalist parties have held counter-protests — speakers, locations, announcements, and activities have been ad-hoc due to security concerns.

Photo journalists at the front lines of the protests have also learned to adapt to the ongoing protests.

For this article, we speak with some of the photojournalists about certain criticisms that have come their way.

A pro-democracy protester and a child on their shoulders holds up the three-finger salute during a demonstration in Bangkok on October 15, 2020, after Thailand issued an emergency decree following an anti-government rally the previous day. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Representation vs. manipulation

For example, in an editorial in the South China Morning Post, one author asks if photojournalists are ‘manipulating’ reality.

“But these deceptively beautiful pictures blur the line between art and reality, begging the question: did these events really occur?” asks the writer Marielle Descalsota.

Journalistic truth is both an objective responsibility and necessity but something that for photojournalists may always be just a bit out of reach. Objectivity, as the previous article points out, may not exist in photojournalism.

Cory Wright, an independent photographer and photojournalist who has been covering the movement since summer, recounts a quote he read by a famous photographer, which he believes encapsulates the whole experience of photojournalism.

“When you decide to point the camera, you’re cropping out the rest of reality in favor of the 35mm that you’ve lined your lens up to,” said Wright. “I don’t think there is an objective form of documentation that is out there, especially when there is a person that is behind the camera.”

To the many prominent photojournalists working in the industry today, claims of such deceit are not only oversimplified but disrespectful and unfairly stereotypes the work that they do and take very seriously,

“I do admit that I have seen it sometimes happen [during these protests] when photographers have moved props for a photo,” said Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai, an independent photographer and stringer for Getty Images and National Geographic Thailand.

“But the real photojournalists working in the industry have mutual respect for journalistic value and ethics, and we stick to the rules of the World Press Photo Standard.”

Shin, who has been to almost every single protest since June, also pointed out that different news organizations – such as Reuters, Getty Images, and so forth – all have their ways in editing and processing their photos — and that does not mean they are manipulated.

“I don’t see it that way, that this is manipulation – adjusting the white balance of an image is normal and a basic [photojournalistic] standard,” said Shin. “Photojournalists also use different cameras and different brands already in the first place. I [for example] use a Nikon; others may use a Cannon or a Sony. That in itself already makes a huge difference.”

These images, Shin said, are based on a selective view of truth — not a manipulated element some people may claim.

Participants gesture a three-finger salute at the start of a “run against dictatorship” in Bangkok on January 12, 2020. – Around ten thousand Thais joined a “run against dictatorship” on Sunday, shouting anti-army slogans and wielding three-finger salutes from the Hunger Games films in the largest show of political defiance since the 2014 coup. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

Part of a larger whole

The argument that “simplified, hyper-stylized narratives” have been deployed to cover these protests is a facile argument — these single images do speak of a particular moment, which is indeed part of the narrative whole.

Wright said that rather than blame photojournalists from capturing a single moment, one should instead appreciate those who are on the ground and recording the events as it unfolds day by day.

“The picture in question that the [SCMP] article focused on – of Soe Zeya Tun’s – I think that he put it very well when he said that that was a moment in a larger moment,” says Cory. “For her [Descalsota] to say it looks scripted, rehearsed, and too aesthetically pleasing – that, again, goes back to being on the ground. That wasn’t actually expected.”

“One photo cannot tell the [whole] story,” says Shin. “Someone who sees it that way is egotistical.”

Creating a narrative?

Reality is subjective — not just among the media and protesters, but among the audience as well. As the previous article mentions, there is a fine line between healthy, truthful reporting, and engineering a particular narrative.

This, as the academic perspective argues, could become problematic and dangerous.

Many who have hoped to see change happen in Thailand look at these students and protest leaders with hope, for they have become the catalyst and symbol for change and progress. Others who support the government have another view.

For journalists like Caleb Quinley, who has covered South East Asia and Thailand for many years, parsing through the biases of both sides and the images the protesters wish to be portrayed is key.

“The protest leaders are aware of how visually compelling the three-finger-salute is to an audience. It’s an effective symbol for conveying their message. Student activists started using the salute a couple of years ago, way before the protests were huge. The activists then (Rome, Janew, Bow, etc.) knew very quickly how well the imagery worked to imply their struggle. It’s a tool they use to tell their story, and it works.”

Therefore journalists like Quinley must make sure to not only capture what it is the students wish to portray but also the whole picture on the ground.

Understanding the medium

One image, one article, or one journalist alone can’t tell an entire story, especially one as complicated and multi-layered as the 2020 protests.

“There seems to be a cultural factor when it comes to looking at the student protests,” said Shin. “To me, these are kids who raised the three-finger salute — so what? If you think that they are heroes, then that is your perspective, that is your truth.”

Everything a photojournalist does must be based on truth and is not meant to manipulate, Shin noted, but those interpretations of such truth are subjective. Don’t these perspectives ultimately lie in society and the collective?

“We are just reporting what is happening. What happens and goes beyond that is out of our control,” he said.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and how these images impact them varies person by person.

To place such responsibility on photojournalists alone is far-fetched and unrealistic, the journalists argue.

It is equally crucial that readers can think critically for themselves and reflect on what they consume, as they are, after all, a part of the conversation and in creating the narrative for the future.

“If somebody wanted to familiarize themselves with this, it is no harder than going on Facebook Live and finding the right channel,” said Wright. “There are countless, hardworking Thai outlets, online centers that are working to cover these protests on social media. Facebook Live is one way that you could literally watch these events from [home] to get a better sense.”

“The reality is photojournalists are capturing important moments. The scenes are powerful – they are dramatic, it’s true,” said Quinley. “But is it not their job to show these scenes to the world in a way that provokes thought, reflection, and conversations?”

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