Journalist or activist?

It’s certainly not unheard of for photographers to cast themselves in the role of activist. Good photography helps to make an argument a whole lot more persuasive so the link is no surprise. But we should worry when they blur the line between activist and journalist because you can’t be both, although some examples of those who try can be found amongst photographers who cover war.

There’s a number that describe themselves not as war photographers but as anti-war photographers. We may find the level of commitment required to fulfil this tag admirable, especially when shooting a wedding can pay more than being shot at, but such a description admits they’re pursuing a role that goes beyond neutral observer, impartial witness and professional journalist. It’s an admission that their intention is to portray things in their worst possible light in support of the counter argument, and it gives rise to the claim that their work is propaganda for that cause.

Only totalitarian psychopaths dispute that war is essentially best avoided given the option. But to argue unconditionally against any military intervention whatsoever is to dispute the merits of the NATO campaign against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or Australia’s right not to be invaded by an expansionist Japan, or the West’s right not to stand idly by while Afghanistan’s then government supported Al-Qaeda trainers in producing 2,000 graduates per year.

But there are plenty of wars that are conducted on far less defensible grounds like colonialism, religion, the pursuit of natural resources and plain old domestic politicking. This might even sum up the majority. But calling yourself anti-war from the outset suggests that you’re not working to assist the reader in deciding which is which for themselves, but rather presenting them with your own conclusions. And taking such a predetermined approach to anything — whether it be a war or the Federal budget — is unbecoming of a journalist.

Of course some war photographers don’t purport to be journalists at all and they acknowledge that openly.That is their right and we can admire their work and their zeal but we shouldn’t be seeing those pictures presented in Time Magazine or Newsweek as journalism. Could you imagine a correspondent of either publication declaring themselves an anti-war correspondent? Is the ethical station of the photographer any less important?

Like most instances of bias in journalism, it’s present because the beholder believes strongly in their moral position and they think that with morality on their side bias becomes acceptable. That is, bias is present because the beholder thinks they’re right.

If they are right, and all war is ultimately and entirely bad and should be avoided at all cost, then surely all that’s necessary is for them to report it straight and let the truth speak for itself?

Wade Laube is the Sydney Morning Herald photographic editor. He blogs at and Tweets at @wadelaube.

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