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The Morality of Photojournalism

What lengths are we willing to go to as we look to follow through with our intentions and convictions?  What are the sacrifices we’re willing to make?  I think of my accomplishments, as well as those of whom I know and admire.  But how often do I ponder the precursors that allowed any such accomplishment or happening to exist in the first place?  What brought us here?  How are we making sense of these outcomes?

The moral dilemma of being a photojournalist clenched its jaws into my psyche this summer as the pandemic spread worldwide, the George Floyd protests dramatically intensified, and the polarizing political climate was further saturating the collective consciousness.  Heading into June 2020, I became instantly engulfed in the battle on the Seattle streets; the collective war waged against unnecessary and relentless police brutality; a march against the deeply cultivated systematic corruption that allows for such abuse of power to manifest.

I took to the streets when the protests started, just as outraged as everyone else.  I sat in the gathering spaces, I chanted, I repeated, I marched.  I also had my camera, an ultimate tool of expression and engagement – something I take with me most everywhere I go.  And although I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of just how monumental these demonstrations would become, there was still no question but to lift the viewfinder to my eye and begin to capture everything. 

On the first day of Seattle protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, police wasted no time in deploying their flash bangs and pepper spray.  Meanwhile, a handful of protestors smashed the windows of an Amazon Fresh shop on First Hill.  A parked car’s windshield was bashed in, a fire was set in the street.  A glaring divide was established on day one.  The police exhibited their force, and the people, unified in contempt, retaliated with a rare and raw outspoken pushback. And it was from that day forward that I chose to be in the mix most every day for the next several weeks, documenting all I could with my camera.  It wouldn’t have made any sense for me not to.  This is where I needed to be.

Throughout the weeks that transpired I don’t recall any kind of moral dilemma as I photographed the people and events surrounding the protests.  I felt confident actually, and increasingly more comfortable; despite the precarious, periodically turbulent nature of the police and National Guard-led offensives.  I turned my camera every direction, boldly, assertively, deliberately.  I got in the face of the police, who were exhibiting a wide range of emotions from  perceptible fear to eerie satisfaction.

The protestors, too, didn’t seem to bat an eye or show the slightest hint of being inconvenienced when I turned my camera’s lens in their direction.  In fact, many people posed. They flashed their uniquely made signs, they shouted verbal exclamations into the camera, they were quick to aid me with water and milk when I was visibly affected by tear gas.  The collective energy was both fierce and unified, and my capturing these moments seemed just as vital a role as anyone else’s.  But as quickly as the day ends, as quickly as one’s mood shifts, as quickly as one’s body begins to ache, one’s own morality is quickly put to the test amid such divisive times.  

As the protests dwindled in size, and after the CHOP/CHAZ formation took place, I found myself retreating back into my own internal depths of rest and reprieve.  The questions began to set in as I phased myself back into a more ordinary routine.  What role had I been serving?  Was I there to march with the thousands of people speaking out, or was I there strictly to capture and document these present, soon to be historical, events?  Could it have been both?

In mid-July, it was reported that federal officers in unmarked vans were physically detaining Portland-based protestors.  Police were also now using facial recognition to target and arrest specific individuals who were involved in the protests.  Word spread fast, and it became expected for similar scenarios to arise throughout the country, particularly in Seattle, known for its pronounced past and present clashes with authority and, of course, its one-of-a-kind unique formation of CHOP.  Seattle-based protestors now expected an evolved threat, and with this anticipation, came heightened nerves and security.  And rightfully so.

It was around this time that I forced myself back into the mindset, to continue capturing the now ever-present small-scale protests being held in Seattle night in, night out.  After a several-week hiatus, I showed up to a protest against ICE in July which commenced in downtown Seattle.  About one hundred people assembled en masse to begin their protest against an unlawful and deplorable detaining of “undocumented” residents of the U.S., and it was clear that this time protestors had begun to run a tighter ship, learning from the last several months of protests, particularly in response to evolving authoritarian tactics.  Demonstration organizers now had full-on designated duties, assisting with medical supplies, equipment and protection.  They rode in numbered vehicles that acted as barricades, caravans and escorts for the marches.  The protestors’ tactics had also evolved.

I weaved into the crowd of people awaiting the orders to march through the downtown streets of Seattle.  In the meantime, I primed my camera, took some casual shots, and right away felt an inherent sense of intrusion on my part.  I was also out of my element, a fairly commonplace brain state amid these bizarre times, and photography is something I can often rely on to break me out of the spell.  

The lead organizer of the protest, dressed in all black, wearing a black ski mask, began to voice the cause with harsh provocation and led the group of protestors up Pine Street.  I made an instinctive dash to the front of the march, finding a vantage point that best oversaw the energy, size and sentiments of those marching, chanting and sign wielding.  I raised my camera in the direction of the crowd as they more-or-less faced me.  As I snapped a couple shots, I heard words being exclaimed in my direction from the woman leading the march.  Within seconds I had realized these warnings were being shouted directly at me through the megaphone, demanding that I not take photos of the protestors, to not show anyone’s faces; to leave.  I then began to hear other shouts from protestors, one exclaiming, “fuck off!”

I virtually stopped in my tracks, and before I knew it, was on the outskirts of the march and gazed upon the protestors as they marched on, defeated, as they chanted everything that needed to be chanted, keeping the necessary, righteous spark alive.  I feebly took more shots from behind, but whatever momentum I was striving for on that day had immediately dwindled to a point of no return. 

I soon retreated to the warm, sheltered safe place I call “home” when, I thought at the time, I could have still been out in the streets marching with the protestors.  I questioned my motives, my place, my intentions.  It became clear that I was present at the protest solely to take photos, to capture this history, and not to visibly, actively participate in the vocal cries for reform.  Thus arose the conundrum: when does documentation become exploitation?   Is there some kind of fine line between commitment and altruism?   Was my presence with the camera an actual liability to the safety of those protesting?

I was in full support of the demonstration that day, as has been the case with most events and gatherings I’ve captured to date.  But that’s not what this is about, is it?  Should it matter whether I’m for or against “the cause” if I’m there solely to record a vibrant, volatile mark in human history?  The answer, I think, should be “no.”  Or better yet, “not really.”  

When I was yelled at that day, I was admittedly annoyed, wanting to state a difference of opinion.  After a month of documenting the protests without any issues, I was suddenly vilified for doing what I had been doing all along.  In my mind this was what the police wanted:  a dissension among journalists and protestors.  Yet my primal, stubborn response out of frustration did not mean that the protestor’s issues with my documenting were wrong, nor misguided.  At the end of the day, our safety and protection from the authorities that we condemn should be our utmost concern.  For that to be jeopardized by a discernible threat, regardless of intent, is grounds for reaction.  But I still feel the need to ask, where does one draw the line?

We live in such explosive times, and we do our best to navigate and filter the unquantifiable amount of information that envelops us from both near and far.  Our dispositions lead us to think, feel and react in certain ways that make the most sense to our experience.  And in so doing, a narrative is cultivated and expressed.  On the receiving end, it’s our job to respond appropriately with deeper understanding to our surface-level perceptions of someone or something.  Through experience and refining, the hope is that we’re able to further explore the core questions as to why people and things are the way they are.

To document people, places and events honestly and intentionally would entail an approach that, on the surface, may appear detached or indifferent.  But this, I suppose, comes with the territory.   What of the core underpinnings, the multitude of “why’s”, that precede – and inevitably follow – this very moment that the journalist has captured?  

I often think of what I would consider a “sociology 101” concept:  Someone is driving on a freeway, another person in a car cuts them off when merging onto the freeway; the driver reacts with anger and frustration toward the other person, basing this incident on the content of the person’s character rather than the context of the situation (never mind they cut them off – we’re driving in big metal death machines at accelerated speeds while having to endure the vast, exhausting daily burdens of being human!).

Photojournalism exists to shine light on the darkness of what already is.  To be a journalist of any capacity, to put oneself in such situations, to capture these phenomena, is a noteworthy act in and of itself.  Yet to determine honesty, intention and integrity behind the finished work is an entirely different question, and is unfortunately one of many.  For even a deceitfully conceived photo has the visceral power to summon a collective reaction and movement.  

Here, I ask that we question “why?” as much as our capacities allow.  In doing so, we stretch ourselves a bit further beyond the dueling, polarizing nature of what we perceive as “right” and “wrong,” and gradually turn to question the very foundations of our reactions.

I admit that I’m still seeking an answer to this question of morality as I yet struggle with my own personal judgements toward myself and others.  My job as a photojournalist further enmeshes itself with these perceptions, and I’ll continue to struggle with these conundrums in novel ways, no doubt.  But based on how I presently relate to my environment, I’ll continue to document the world as it is to satisfy my cultivated itch for storytelling, exploration and connection.  The trick is acknowledging, handling and forgiving all the elements that come with it, while trying not to lose one’s humanity in the process.  A tall, subjective order.

Jordan Somers

Jordan Somers is currently in his second year of Visual Media at Seattle Central College. He specializes in photojournalism and documentary work, with a particular emphasis on social movements happening throughout the city. His 2020 documentary, Hope is Not Cancelled, was an official selection at the Local Sightings Film Festival, and won an award for best editing at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival. Jordan is an avid traveler when granted the opportunity, and has a keen interest in psychology and existential philosophy.

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