A Photographer’s Approach Toward Covering Sensitive Subjects

A Photographer’s Approach Toward Covering Sensitive Subjects

on August 29, 2017

Photography is an art in its rawest form, and it can influence people worldwide. There are two sides to photography: capturing the beauty of life and capturing some of the biggest issues that our society faces. Photos are the best means of presenting life’s myriad colors in its true form. By looking at a photograph, you can get a full sense of what people are going through, what problems they’re facing, also can get a sense of awareness and seek action.

Every photographer has their own style, expertise, and interest but the bravest ones risk their lives to uncover the truth and portray sensitive issues for the world to see. These photographers take the unconventional route of photography; put themselves in difficult situations for the greater good, because they know that pictures can speak louder than words.

Sensitive Issues Covered by Photographers

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”– Irving Penn.

When covering sensitive subjects, we have to think about the emotional impact that those stories might have on the ones involved. A person allowing to take photographs of them in such a fragile state must be assured that they won’t be put in any jeopardy when the content gets published.

War Photography

Real-life Incidents of Capturing Sensitive Issues

These are some of the sensitive issues covered by photographers.

Sexual Abuse

As a photographer capturing social issues, Mariella Furrer explained, the emotional cluster that they witness while covering such events are a mixture of guilt, shame, and trauma in the victim’s eyes and facial expressions. Though she was not allowed to capture, those troubled human emotions stay inside the photographer, and the viewer can feel those in the photographs.

She tried to make the best of it by always asking for permission before taking any photos, and even went as far as interviewing pedophiles from a sex-offender group-therapy session. She honored everyone’s rights and privacy, while still sending out the strong message she intended to send in the first place.

Sexual Abuse

Wars and protests

In 1963, Malcolm Browne managed to capture iconic photos of the Buddhist Monks’ service that stirred the public and left a strong message.

The photo showed two monks pouring gasoline on the third monk, who was right next to them and setting him on fire. The whole ceremony was held in deliberate silence, and the man burned alive without uttering a single sound. Photographs like these were one of the main causes of big protests against the Vietnamese war.

Wars and protests


French photographer Olivier Ciappa thought of an innovative way to break stereotypes and raise awareness about homophobia by creating a series called ‘’Imaginary couples’’.

He selected empowering men and women and put them in different scenarios by replacing their real-life opposite sex partners with same-sex ones. He captured beautiful, intimate, and fragile portrait shots that have since gone viral. The message was clear and very well accepted.

Challenges Faced by Photographers

Riot Police

Photographers capturing sensitive issues like corruption, war, sexual abuse, and vandalism, etc. go through a lot of resistance, some of which are the toughest time of those photographers’ lives. Here is a short overview of the most common challenges that photographers face when covering sensitive subjects:

  • Legal obstacles – The law is very tricky and requires a proper education on what you can and cannot do. Without proper knowledge, you can easily get sued or arrested, which is something no one wants. A photographer named Marisha Camp got into trouble for shooting photos of kids in West Virginia, after the locals got angry and confronted. They threatened her with physical violence; she was detained, and eventually escorted out of the county by the police.
  • Political interference – When capturing big state-related events, such as wars and protests, sometimes the government interferes because you are trying to discover hidden things that might rub someone the wrong way. Politicians are powerful people who have a lot of resources at their disposal. They can use various methods to stop you from showing something they want to keep a secret.
  • Physical obstruction and violence – Photographer Giordano’s incident would be fresh to many in the industry who’s been on the front lines of protests in Baltimore, related to the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. Giordano and a few other protesters were swarmed by the police, pushed to the ground, and beaten. 

How Photographers Covering Sensitive Issues Can Deal With Such Challenges

Broken Camera

If you are considering dealing with such sensitive issues containing social or political uproar in your photography, you must have the following things in mind:

  • Knowledge on model releases – You need to educate yourself on model releases. When photographing sensitive issues or otherwise, you need to ask for consent (in the right form) from the subject before publishing or licensing the photo. Basically, a model release is a contract whose ultimate purpose is to protect you, the photographer from any future liability. Without prior consent, you can easily get sued or arrested, which is a burden that you don’t want to bear as a photographer.
  • Insurance of Photography instruments – If you’re already aware that you’re going on a hazardous assignment, make sure you get an insurance contract that covers theft, damage, or other losses. It would be beneficial to think about liability insurance as well. You can never know if someone’s going to trip on your ring light and hurt themselves. The cost of these policies is not that big, and it’s definitely worth it.
  • Legal advice – Various laws are covering the whole photojournalism profession, particularly now that drone photography is on the rise, and anyone can be an amateur photographer using their smartphone camera. Bear in mind that laws differ from country to country, so make sure you educate yourself, ask for legal advice, or simply ask for permission from local authorities before venturing into sensitive areas.

The power of a single photo is intangible. We have seen it many times so far, and it never seizes to impress. Sensitive photography is a very complex subject which requires sense, bravery, ethics, dedication, and knowledge. As a photographer with the right approach, you will be able to shake the very ground and inspire positive change in the world.

– SmartPHOTOeditors

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