Photography 101: Photojournalism vs Other


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photojournalism or editorial photography is different. And there are ethics involved. Unfortunately, ethics today are falling by the wayside in this new world of fake news. The Senior Photo Editor at STAT News magazine recently reminded me how important it is to be honest with your work. Photojournalism has to be real and not posed or faked.

Whether you’re shooting for a newspaper, online publication, Getty Images or the wire services the viewing public trusts you to be honest. Unlike other genres of photography photojournalism is not about art or creative license. Anytime you shoot in a documentary style it’s incumbent on you, the photographer, to retain photographic integrity.

I am very grateful to this particular editor for reminding me that editorial photography has strict guidelines. It wasn’t a breach of ethics on my part but an unintentional faux pas. Having shot for a newspaper I knew all of this of course but during a recent photo assignment I took my eye off the ball. Thankfully, in labelling my photos for publication with the proper exif data, I described the scene correctly. Here is the shot in question.


Roberto Mejida, M.D. for STAT News Magazine

The image I wanted to capture was a patient consulting with the doctor. In this particular instance the doctor had cleared his patient appointments for the photo shoot and I was left without a patient to photograph. I had my assistant sit in and assume the role of a patient. It conveys the message I was looking for but violated the cardinal rule of photojournalism—it was staged and not real. You might not think it’s a big deal but it is. In entering my exif data I clearly stated that my assistant was posing as a patient.


Roberto Mejida, M.D. and Colleagues for STAT News Magazine

The editor thanked me for labelling my photos honestly so she could make the necessary editorial determinations. In this case the photo was discarded for another that was real and not posed. I wasn’t intentionally trying to deceive, I was trying to depict a typical doctor/patient scenario that due to circumstances beyond my control wasn’t available to me. The photo of the doctor (above) with his colleagues was not posed and I was capturing a completely candid interaction. Do you see (understand) the difference? Documentary photos have to be real.


Roberto Mejida, M.D. for STAT News Magazine

The final example from the shoot shows the doctor posing for a portrait. It is a posed shot but it’s not a fake shot. The first example is fake (unintentionally) because the patient is not a real patient. The second example is completely candid and not fake—it is real. This last example, as stated before, is posed but it is also real (and acceptable). I know it seems like splitting hairs but it’s very important not to cross ethical lines when shooting in the documentary style of a photojournalist. Editors rely on your integrity not to fake the shot.

When photographing in the documentary style you have to be very careful with your post-processing: I corrected the white balance and added a touch of sharpening—that was it. These shots are straight out of the camera with no cropping, color manipulation (beyond white balance correction) and absolutely no cloning (removing distractions from the scene). Any further processing is left to the editor (not the photographer). You might not ever do any documentary photography but if you do keep it honest.

Male Cinereous Harrier

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

One last example: I am primarily a wildlife photographer. When shooting for myself I shoot and process artistically. However, if I was shooting for the National Audubon Society or another scientific journal I would be shooting (and minimally processing) in the documentary style. Street photography falls into the same category. Viewers and clients have to know your photos have integrity (especially when it’s a paid gig). They have to be able to trust you. There is no room for fake news or fake photos that pretend to faithfully represent real events.


9 responses to “Photography 101: Photojournalism vs Other

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