Thursday, March 04, 2004

Tolerance is required

There are many skills a photojournalist must have in the camera bag. One of the most important - but seldom discussed - is tolerance.

Every PJ is placed in uncomfortable situations. Often these situations or an entire environment or culture may be contrary to a PJ's core beliefs. This doesn't allow PJs to demonize the subject. Instead, the PJ must treat the situation fairly with dignity and professionalism. There is no excuse for biased, unprofessional behavior.

The most extreme example I can imagine is a vegan (absolute vegetarian) PJ covering an award-winning slaughterhouse. Although the PJ may find the entire idea repugnant, the assignment must still be handled professionally and the images must still tell the story.

In this example, the slaughterhouse won an award for cleanliness or a beneficial workplace or its community involvement and cooperation. All of these are good for the community. In this one specific instance, this particular PJ's personal beliefs run contrary to the good of the community.

Hopefully this won't happen to anyone, but it's a real-world possibility at a smaller newspaper. Bigger papers with good assignment editors match personalities to assignments (in other words, I would get the slaughterhouse assignment).

This situation happens most often on the religion and political pages, which brings us again to our main topic. Some religions and politicians are intolerant. They find a like-minded niche of intolerants and begin to recruit marginal others. In some countries, these same people may become the de facto government through their total intolerance.

In extreme circumstances, tolerance is the only quality keeping a PJ alive to tell the story of intolerance. By being able to tolerate the prevailing attitude without drawing too much attention to themselves, PJs can return to tell the story. They effectively save their fight for another day.

This doesn't mean a PJ is allowed to ignore obvious societal problems, nor does it mean a PJ may be deliberately biased once safely away from the situation. It means the PJ must be fair to the story and the situation. They must show the situation as it is. Sometimes this is hard.

If there's a significant problem, a PJ must acquire the hard evidence of this problem. If there are rumors of atrocities, then find the action taking place and/or photograph the results. These images are fair. The PJ is making no comment other than, "this happened."

Although I've gone to a more extreme circumstance than planned, I'll share a sage adage, "If you can do something about it, stop it. If you can't, document it." This is how most memorable images are collected. A dead PJ does no good. Additionally, remember almost everyone understands the cash value of the equipment carried by a PJ. If the PJ makes a mistake at the wrong time in the wrong place, it's all gone at gunpoint.

Having said the above, I'll try to get back to my main point. From day to day, community PJs encounter and are required to document people, places and things they don't wish to document. It's the job. Be fair. Be tolerant. Possibly, the PJ learns something new as well.

Personally, I've learned all situations involve people. I approach the subject of each assignment as a person rather than an issue. A person can stand in front of me. An issue is like the air. All I can photograph is the reality of light emission, reflection and refraction. Everything else is a matter of opinion and there are as many opinions as there are people.

Enough for now,

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