Tay Kay Chin
Bryan Van Der Beek
Wong Maye-e (Associated Press Staff Photographer)
Tom White (Lecturer at Yale-NUS Singapore)
Neo Xiaobin (Photojournalist at The Straits Times)
Edwin Koo (Independent Documentary Photographer)
Bernice Wong (Independent Documentary Photographer)
Courtesy of Yu-Mei Balasingamchow
Tay Kay Chin: Thank you for coming. I think it’s been a long time since we have such a big crowd. I’m Kay Chin, I’m one of the co-founders. Darren is the other co-founder. We have a few more co-founders but they’re not here, but it’s okay. It’s very heartening and encouraging that so many people turn up for something so boring. We were just talking among ourselves that in the past twenty years, that I and some other people have been in the business, we never recall any such discussion about ethics, whether in the paper where I used to work or elsewhere. So it’s usually when someone gets into trouble, someone is being exposed for setting up, then we say wah, like … And then the interest will suddenly die down. But I think it’s important that we talk about it. Today’s session is recorded, not because ISD or what is interested, but because there are a lot of requests from people who are not able to be here, and also we want to be able to actually take this conversation beyond today, hopefully build maybe a micro-site or something, so that the conversation can continue. So that if you want to find out something about some ethical situation, you can maybe go to our website. Very ambitious, but we are always very ambitious. So it’s recorded, and we want to keep this dialogue very open, as in, you will not be hearing us talking and you just sit there quietly and do nothing. At any one time, you have a comment, a question, just raise your hand. But we also never end on time. But this time we will try to end on time. Okay? So, without further ado, I’m going to just run through how we’re going to run this event today. After I introduce my co-moderator Bryan, we will invite each of the panellists – there are 5 of them, actually there are 6, one of them have to work. This is the reality of working in the media. Chin Hon is the associate editor of Today, today’s there Parliament and City Harvest stuff, so he’s stuck at work. So each of the panellists will briefly introduce themselves, and then within the 5 minutes’ time given to them, they will also make a statement about ethics. So they can say, I hate people who set up pictures, they should be killed. Fine, things like that. Or they can talk about something they’re very concerned about. Then after that, we will pick up on one of the points and that’s when the conversation starts. We’ll let them speak a bit first, then any time anybody want to talk, just raise your hand, try to get one of us to notice and we will … And also one request: if you can, state your name and IC number … Just state your name in case we need to come back to you for clarifications. We do take this very seriously. We have people who have volunteered to transcribe for us, people who are helping us film and record. Thank you very much first. Yah. Okay? So my co-moderator today is Bryan. He’s going to introduce himself.
Bryan van der Beek: Oh really?
Tay Kay Chin: Yes. Short one ah.
Bryan van der Beek: Okay, I’m Bryan, I don’t do as much of this now as I used to but I started off my career as a photojournalist at newspapers and doing documentary photography. Over time I’ve kind of moved more into commercial, but I still do some editorial work. I’m also the workshop director for Shooting Home here, so every year during Shooting Home, which is our in-house workshop where we get aspiring photographers who want to do it professionally, they’ll come in and we’ll always end up talking about ethics in some way or another because it’s very easy to go out and take pictures and subscribe meanings to things that, if you don’t check properly, it’s not accurate. Or the way people are getting photographs may not necessarily be, I won’t say the right way, but the approach to getting a photograph may alter the scene in some way or other. So we’re here today to kind of talk about the limits of what is too far, what is not far enough. I think one of the main things we’re going to do, and let me state from the start that you’re not going to leave here with answers. You’re not going to come out here and say, I know this is right, this is wrong, because everybody has different ethical boundaries. Some people will feel that certain things are okay, and we’ll run through certain scenarios later and we’ll see what you guys think. For some people, oh it’s okay what, other people, how could you do such a thing. Having worked in the US media and in Singapore, it’s very interesting to see the level of tolerance that is allowed over there versus here. Of course there’s no tolerance here lah, in setting up stuff, that kind of thing. But we will go into all this stuff later. Let me introduce the first panellist here. Maye-E is with the Associated Press.
Wong Maye-E: Oh hi! I thought you did a better job. Okay, I’m Maye-E, Wong Maye-E. I’ve been a photojournalist for 14 years. I started out my career for 3 years at the Straits Times, and then I moved on to work for the AP which is a news organisation headquartered in New York, and we have bureaus all over the world and we have subscribers all over the world as well, so we’re one of the biggest news agencies around and our competitors are AFP and Reuters. And if you open the Straits Times, if you still don’t know what the AP is, in a nutshell, if you open the Straits Times, you see a picture from overseas and on the bottom right hand corner, you see Reuters or used to be AP, and that’s basically my colleagues overseas and that’s how they get pictures because they can’t send a photographer from the Straits Times to every part of the world in getting news. So I would later on talk a little more about ethics and the media and how it seems to be changing, and the tolerance that we have for it, which is basically zero. Like manipulation of images and all that. Well go into that later, but yeah, my main beat is covering news out of North Korea. I’m there 10 days a month or more. I just came back, but aside from the daily life I do sports and Olympics and Istana and everything that you can think of, and Cirque du Soleil. But I’ll talk a little bit about how even like ethics like runs across the board, it’s a standard and it’s pretty um … that we keep no matter what we cover, and even in videography and all. So ya, over to you, Tom.
Tom White: Okay, hi, I’m Tom White. I’m the non-Singaporean in this.
Tay Kay Chin: I’m not Singaporean.
Tom White: I teach at Yale-NUS, I teach here some workshops at Objectifs, I used to teach at the ICP in New York. I’ve taught at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I’m a photographer by trade, freelance. I’ve run the whole gamut of photography, I’ve done kind of arty, documentary, new stuff. I’ve done a lot of what we call stringing for the wire agencies where basically you’re not staff but they pay you anyway to take the pictures and distribute them. I’ve done photography for newspapers, for magazines, editorial, I’ve run of kind of the whole gamut of photography. So a bit of a jack of all trades, if you like.
Tay Kay Chin: Your opening statement, if you have?
Tom White: Opening statement? For me, I mean, I can talk more about this, but for me, what’s interesting about photography is how we use it as a tool for communication. I’m not so much interested in photography per se, I’m interested in how we use it. I’m interested in kind of the social relations around photography and around that type of communication, and essentially the discourse around that, rather than what makes a good photograph.
Bryan van der Beek: Okay, before we go to Xiaobin, Maye-E, I forgot to ask you your statement.
Wong Maye-E: Oh, it’s not really a statement because it’s such a broad subject, but I think that there is a very … In a nutshell, I think there’s a time and place for everything, which is like, photo manipulation, setting up pictures, a time and place for it. And like Tom said, to me photography is, I mean, I love photography, but also my main use for photography is as a form of communication, and I think it’s very important what we choose to communicate and how we communicate it with people, and I’m talking about pictures. So I think we’ll evolve into that a little bit more later.
Neo Xiaobin: Hi, I’m Xiaobin, I’m a photojournalist with the Straits Times. So this is my metier and this is the first job I was in. I graduated as a journalism major from NTU and then for the first 2½ years, I was with My Paper, the news section, the now defunct My Paper. And now, and then I transferred over to the Straits Times. So newspaper photographers, I’m not sure, I think there’s only one here. I was hoping that more of them would be here, since we are working in the [unintelligible]. But got Parliament, got City Harvest today, so I guess we won’t see them. So I’m here. Ya, I think it’s more of questions. I think I come with, I mean, I’m not of an editorial position, but I do have something from my boss that she wants to convey.
Tay Kay Chin: You know we’re recording?
Neo Xiaobin: Because I think it was a question that was mentioned in one of the survey questions and Straits Times is mentioned quite a bit, since a lot of scenarios were based on previous assignments.
Tay Kay Chin: We never said the Straits Times …
Neo Xiaobin: Got. So I guess I can do it later. Basically I would think that ethics in itself is really broad, and then if we wanted to break it down, every scenario, I was just telling, sharing with Emmeline that, like, just talking on 10 scenarios, you can talk the whole night. So you probably have to do a part 2.
Bryan van der Beek: So let’s introduce Edwin.
Edwin: Hi everyone, my name is Edwin and I’m a documentary photographer, just photographer because I don’t do a lot of documentary these days. I started out 14 years ago as a newspaper photographer with this tabloid called Streats. It was meant to reduce the ad revenues for Today. We succeeded for 3 years, but after that we folded and then I joined the Straits Times for 2 years. So I ended my newspaper career after 4 years. I went to Nepal for 2 years, started my documentary photography journey, decided to sort of take a step back to sort of look at things from a … 3 steps back, instead of being on the forefront every day. So I think those years gave me a good kind of perspective by giving myself more space. Right now I do a mix of things. I run a photography business, a small collective of 6 photographers. I also run an annual masterclass in Nepal, and at the same time I continue to do my personal work and long-term. So some of it you might have seen, like these works of MRT trains, Transit, it’s downstairs. I’ve done a book called Paradise, about Pakistan, Swat Valley. Some works that you see on my website, like Tibetan Musuo, still ongoing. So regarding ethics, I think if there is a kind of description, I would say that it’s like you’re standing on shifting sands. Why, because I think the context always changes. Because at any one time, right, we’re not just a photographer. We’re also a human being. And we are also a human being in many capacities. So that’s number one. Number two, the situation always changes, not just the situation in which you’re shooting, but in the situation that you’re showing. So in what context do you show, how do you show it, is it truthful, is it truthful to a certain degree? So I think that if there’s one thing I would say, it’s that the environment that we operate in is a shifting sand, but there is one constant, and that’s yourself. So how do you then determine that … how do you get a firm foothold of yourself? So I think one of the ways is to really hear more, experience more and then you make the rule for yourself. And that rule may apply to you, but not apply to the next person. So like some people will say that, I’m no longer a photojournalist, I’m an artist. So it’s like, you know, they changed their context. But we’ll go on to of course debate that. I think it’s very unfair to the word “artist”, super unfair. So I think if there’s one position that I’m going to take, it’s about context, and I would like to talk more about that later.
Bernice Wong: Hi, My name is Bernice Wong. I studied sociology in NUS, so I didn’t really have a photography background. Figuring out ethics was, you know, dependent on the situation. It was like reflexive. I do a lot of documentary work, more so with this single mum family in Singapore. And because I have a very, very close relationship with the family, so then I face a lot of ethical dilemmas along the way. So for me, really, ethics is reflexive and it’s like, it depends on the situation.
Bryan van der Beek: Okay, when we talk about ethics, right, everybody has mentioned so far, it’s a very huge, broad topic. It can be anywhere from should I take this picture, to should I send this picture out, to the deeper, more difficult questions like, if you’re involved with a family, if they don’t have enough food to eat, can you jump in and provide them with something – is that going to affect your integrity, is it going to affect the outcome of the story? Although when we talk about ethics, primarily we talk with reference to documentary photography and photojournalism, mainly because those are what we perceive to be the truth. Everybody hears this word like, oh, journalism needs to be objective and if you ask everybody here, there’s no such thing as objective. You’re going to go into a situation, everybody’s going to interpret it differently. So the words that we tend to try to use a bit more these days is being responsible, you need to be responsible in your reporting, and no matter what you say and how good you are at this point in time, you’re always going to affect the scene that you’re photographing to an extent. So I guess the question is, how much do you affect it, when is it okay and when is it not. Okay, I’m just going to get this out at the very beginning, I think that the currency that journalists and photographers deal with, their main source of currency is credibility. So your credibility is what makes people trust you to tell the story. All you need to do is mess that up once. All you have to do is make a photograph that’s not true and have somebody find out, and your credibility goes down the drain. That’s not to say that everything that you do is fake, but if you just have one fake picture, all the work that you’re going to put, all the work that you put into the past few years is going to come into question because people will never be able to tell for sure whether that is real or not. So we’re going to talk about the subject of realness, we’re going to talk about situations that we encounter, and we’re going to talk about how different, how taking one step and saying, if I do this now, what are the consequences? A lot of us think of it as, can you set this thing up? If this person is doing something, when you get there, they stop doing – can you ask them to do it again? It sounds like ya, but they were just doing it, so you can ask them to do it again.
Tay Kay Chin: But there are very strict rules, Bryan, in the world of photojournalism about setting up. Maybe …
Bryan van der Beek: The world of photojournalism …
Tay Kay Chin: Let’s say AP. Let’s ask Maye-E. In AP, when can you set up a picture? Or never?
Wong Maye-E: Well, like I said, there’s a time and place for everything but let me put it out there where I’m coming from, I’m coming from so don’t stone me as I’m walking out, all you artists. I’m coming from a place where I work for the AP and the AP holds high regard, and I think the other word we can use is accuracy in telling the story to our readers, as close to the truth as possible. What Bryan says is true, you do affect the scene, but you can also influence it or you can step back and try not to influence it and let things happen naturally. All scenarios, I can share many experiences that I’ve had seeing a photographer set up a picture, and then watch their career go down the drain. From then on every nice moment that he has, the reaction from everyone is, set up one lah. And it’s like, poor guy, right, he could be standing there for four hours, really, sincerely waiting for a moment, and it’s just tainted. And there’s this other thing about – what’s this other thing that you brought up, that’s staying in my brain – we’ll come back to me in a minute …
Tay Kay Chin: What is allowed?
Wong Maye-E: So what is allowed? If you’re doing like a one-on-one interview with like Netanyahu, and it’s obviously arranged, we’re going to do a TV interview and we’re going to do your portrait and we’re going to take pictures of you during the interview – TV has to set up the scene, the lighting and all that, and usually, the photographer is there taking pictures as he’s talking naturally. We’re not going to interrupt an interview and go, hey, hold your thought, can you look pensive? We’re not going to do that. Just take pictures as they are talking, as natural as possible. And why? Because there are some people like Trump, who makes funny expressions that you want to catch. And then later if you want to do a feature on this person, then we actually make the time to set up an environment portrait. And usually what we do is in our captions, and every picture is captioned, we would put in the caption that So-and-so poses for a portrait. So we’ve come out clean, we just have to put ourselves out there and be transparent in what we do. Can we set up anything else? No, unless it’s portraits.
Tay Kay Chin: Food.
Wong Maye-E: Well, AP doesn’t really shoot food. And even in food, we try not to. If we’re going to do like, crazy food I find in North Korea, I just like will order it and then get the waitress to put it. Maybe I will keep like the styling of the background the same, but as it is. Like I won’t like … If it’s pigs’ blood, I won’t like squeeze it to make it more bloody. You know what I mean? Like whatever lah. But that’s what I mean. We keep it as close and accurate as we see it, so that you can get that accurate piece of news.
Tay Kay Chin: So am I right …
Wong Maye-E: Don’t want to trick you mah, you know. Like how many of you have … Simple question, I was just thinking about this at the food court. How many have looked at a menu and go like, oh my God, I want to order that, at the picture. And the food comes and it looks nothing like that, and you go like, shit, I mean – I just said shit – And you feel really cheated, right? I can almost draw a parallel to that. I forgot to bring this awesome book I bought about 15 years ago from Borders, and it’s this like really pensive looking lady, and then it had a cage in front of her, and I was like, wow, this is a great shot, like, to get her like that. And then later I realised like, a year later, when I finally wanted to read the book, it was a photo montage. So I realised that I felt cheated into believing something that was not originally that way.
Tay Kay Chin: Okay, hold your thought. Sorry.
Audience: Okay when you say food, right, can you rotate the bowl?
Tay Kay Chin: You can rotate yourself.
Audience: Can you rotate so that the chicken leg like faces you or something?
Wong Maye-E: Of course. For aesthetic reasons for something like that, when you’re shooting food, can. I mean, are you altering the truth? I mean, like, if the dish was specifically served that way, otherwise it would taste different and if you changed it, you change the meaning, then no. But this is very hard to illustrate with food.
Tay Kay Chin: Okay, hold your thought. I’m going to ask the same question to Xiaobin because wire services and newspapers sometimes have different ethics.
Bryan van der Beek: Different standards.
Tay Kay Chin: Different sets of standards. Do you have the same …?
Neo Xiaobin: I think you’re talking about on the part of the photojournalist, right, the photographer having control?
Tay Kay Chin: Okay, so maybe, hang on. What we understand now is, for portraits, environmental portraits, it’s okay.
Wong Maye-E: But for us, we caption … display board.
Tay Kay Chin: But you never set up a news photo. So for example if you, if you came late and know that there was an accident and people were fighting and you missed it, you don’t go there and instigate another fight.
Wong Maye-E: Can I quickly …? There are many bad jokes about this, like you know, like you want to shoot, like I missed the white lion, the white tiger in the zoo killing the man, when you see children just throw lollipops – bad joke. But I want to chip in there. I have been … I covered the tsunami back, 10 years ago, 11 years ago. And like, old woman’s crying, like really crying by herself and one photographer is standing far away shooting. And then suddenly, like another photographer comes and sees this and moves closer to the woman. And then the woman is like standing there thinking that okay, he really needs me to cry more, and she’s like, ahhhhh, you know, really being very dramatic about it. I come by and I’m like, seeing what’s happening, I refuse to take the photo. Because she was actually quietly weeping and now suddenly, more photographers come, and then they see her crying really violently, and they crowd in and then as they’re taking she cries louder. It’s like there were a couple of us who actually stepped back and said we’re just going to take a picture of this scene so that if our boss asks us, why does Reuters and you don’t have the dramatic crying, we can go, this is the reason why, you know. Obviously it’s instigated. It’s your own comfort level and your own ability to sense how honest you are about a situation.
Tay Kay Chin: So we need to come back to ST.
Bryan van der Beek: I’m going to jump in. How many of you, if you see the situation, how many of you will take the photograph, hands up? Sure or not. I mean, honest truth?
Tay Kay Chin: What situation?
Bryan van der Beek: The situation where a woman crying, you go close, she really starts to pour her heart out, and then you come by … There are some cultures that do it. I don’t know whether it’s purposely or not, but you know, when they’re in front of the camera, they ham it up.
Tay Kay Chin: A lot of people do it because the more dramatic they look, the more help they can get. So like, I’m so pathetic, so people may give more money. And after a while, they become media-trained, trained by us.
Wong Maye-E: So back to the question. How many of you …
Bryan van der Beek: How many of you would see that situation and not take the photograph? Or take the photograph of the overall scene?
Audience Woman #1: I would take the picture and then decide later.
Bryan van der Beek: Okay, I think that’s fair.
Tay Kay Chin: I think most people do.
Bryan van der Beek: So if we take that situation, that we go back and we talk about it, we talk about the whole, you see that photograph and this lady is crying and she’s got tears streaming down and she’s looking to heaven, and it’s a great photograph – and then you see the photograph Maye-E takes, which is 10 photographers crowded around her, and you see that photograph, suddenly the immediacy of that photograph completely gets lost. It doesn’t feel like that private moment. And I think a lot of photographers, what they try to do, I think to me, the primary job of a documentary photographer and a photojournalist, is to put themselves in a position where they can show you something that they are experiencing, as close as possible to what the scene is, as close as possible to what they’re seeing. So their responsibility … And that’s why photographers, as far as possible, barring war zones, don’t like going out on like photo walks and cluster together and shoot. In a way we’re very solitary beings when we’re shooting because we want to find our own little story. If you ask a lot of photographers, if it’s not a scrum situation, a lot of people are in one place, I think generally we’ll just walk the other side and try to find something else. Because everybody else taken that picture. It’s not a matter of taking the picture, but you know they’re going to influence the scene, all right? So like what you said, ma’am, yes, you can take the picture if you want, and you can pass it on to your editor and say, if you want it, I have it. But then how does fit in with your set of personal ethics? Is it a cop-out, is it one of those situations where you say, I shoot lah, I let my editor decide. Then it’s like saying, pushing the buck lor, I’m not dealing with this. You can do that, I don’t think that there’s anything specifically wrong with it. But how do you feel about it?
Tay Kay Chin: Can I just ask Xiaobin what …
Bryan van der Beek: Ya.
Tay Kay Chin: So how much power do you have as a journalist? So you encounter something that is questionable, as a Straits Times photographer, do you have the power to say, I’m not going to shoot that? If my boss asks, I will explain to her and tell her I’m right and she’s wrong. Or you just have to do it, and then go back and say, I did A and B, so I don’t know. How is it like?
Neo Xiaobin: I think if you’re a young kind of thing, maybe you would like do it and then ask your boss. So like if you’re over the years, with experienced enough situations kind of thing, you would have, like, if you didn’t know it within yourself whether people are hamming it up, whether things are happening for you, to discern whether the situation is … Ya. So to your question of what we, what are some of the situation where we have control over, we have product shoots, photo shoots, fashion shoots, photo illustrations, ya, portraits. But when it comes to a news situation, if it’s happened and you’ve missed it, you just go back and get scolded. I mean, that’s, but I would say that different people have different moral standards and different ethics. I mean, I’ve seen people recreate situations before, so … I mean, I can only speak for myself.
Tay Kay Chin: So what do we do? Like say, say anyone of you, you saw someone doing something that is clearly questionable. What would you do – call police, call Bryan or …
Bryan van der Beek: Yeah, that’s the challenge with the social media thing now.
Tay Kay Chin: So if post on Facebook, you shame the fella. Seriously, have you done anything like that before?
Edwin Koo: Let me just add on to that situation. Because …
Tay Kay Chin: What situation? As usual, a lot of situations …
Edwin Koo: The woman crying. Because we are assuming that she is crying to get attention. But have we ever also thought that it could be that because you’re hurting her feelings directly?
Wong Maye-E: No lah, you can tell one. Edwin, you can tell. Like hurting her feelings – how? Like that I’m offending her by taking her photo?
Edwin Koo: By having a group of people crowding around her.
Wong Maye-E: Oh, the situations I’m talking about are very obvious. It’s really like the, uhhhhh, then the eyes are looking at … AHHHHH … It’s like the Chinese, like a lot of …
Edwin Koo: Hang on, I think we’re being a bit judgemental …
Tay Kay Chin: No, no, no, there is a possibility of this kind of scenario. What would you do?
Edwin Koo: I would probably have taken that picture, but would have taken a step back and …
Tay Kay Chin: You’d say sorry and …
Edwin Koo: Ya. Because, I don’t know, because it’s a decent thing. And I think, I cannot secondguess why she started crying. That’s the thing.
Tay Kay Chin: So you might ask.
Edwin Koo: I will ask if I can speak Bahasa.
Bryan van der Beek: I mean, generally, the person if they’re uncomfortable will just move away. I think we’ve all been in that situation. If they’re not comfortable with the camera, they’ll turn away or they will just walk off.
Tay Kay Chin: It’s interesting that within 10 minutes, like, discuss scenario, cannot, because when you came into this room earlier on, you only think about things like photo manipulation, setting up. So ethics is really quite …
Edwin: Because look, I don’t think we can pass a value judgement on this woman, why she’s crying, because she might have lost, like, her whole family.
Wong Maye-E: No, but then you interview after that. If you’re talking about, based on your experience, based on working with the brat pack, you know, out there, and going around and dealing with people every day of your life, I think you can tell whether … And if you’ve been observing the situation, you know …
Edwin Koo: Sure.
Wong Maye-E: I think there’s better judgement on that part.
Edwin Koo: Sure.
Wong Maye-E: We’re not talking about just walking into a scene and then seeing 10 photographers and she’s crying loudly. Then ya lah, it’s very obviously, you would know, okay, is she being offended. But like what Bryan said, a lot of people who don’t want to be shot make it very obvious to you, you know.
Tay Kay Chin: Ethical also means you are committed to accuracy. So in this case, if he had gone back and found out why she was crying and worked that into the caption, he would have been okay. Would you have been, would that make you feel better?
Edwin Koo: Ya, I think so. Because there’s still closure. The thing is, I agree with the fact that, if you like, the first photographer goes in with the wide lens and start putting it in her face, and then you join this photographer and start to gang, to go around her and start to shoot – I think that very action is ethically very wrong because you are, number one, you are not very mind- … You are actually causing distress. I mean, anybody in that situation would be distressed, unless you are like camwhore …
Wong Maye-E: Can I say something? I have been in a situation when it’s like that …
Tay Kay Chin: Tom has been trying to say something.
Tom White: No, I haven’t. No, I think what you’re talking about is, I mean, a different situation. I mean, if you’re sitting there and you see someone quietly weeping, and then they ham it up for the camera, and then you come along and you see this woman, like, absolutely distraught, maybe you might think, oh wow, look, that’s a great picture, this woman’s really, really distraught. You haven’t necessarily been there for the whole kind of sequence of events. So sometimes you can come into a situation, you can make a judgement about what’s happening, not being in full command of the facts.
Edwin Koo: Ya, you don’t know what happened before.
Tom White: You don’t know what happened, so then you think, oh wow, I got this great picture and then, you maybe talk to the journalist later or you talk to her and then you find out …
Tay Kay Chin: So his point is, don’t assume. If you can, ask.
Tom White: But then I have another …
Wong Maye-E: But then can I just point out to Edwin …
Tay Kay Chin: Can I drag Bernice first?
Wong Maye-E: No, if not we’re going to lose track of things …
Tay Kay Chin: No, no, no, we will lose track because … Bernice, have you ever felt manipulated by your subject, like you know that this subject is purposely doing something so that she will look so pathetic or needy, so that you will then go and do something.
Bernice Wong: I think because the work that I do, they’re mostly like long-term projects, so I would know my subjects quite well. And I would only choose to commit when I feel comfortable with the person, and I know the person is very real and honest. Otherwise over time I would not feel comfortable, and then I’ll just leave altogether.
Tay Kay Chin: One of the scenario we posted on the survey was about someone working on a long-term project and found that one of the subjects was shoplifting. It’s based on a real incident that she encountered. So maybe you can tell us how you resolve it?
Bernice Wong: So what happens is that, because I photograph a lot of youth at risk and because I’m close with them, so they will tell me things like, oh, today, I stole like 5 packets of cigarettes and they’re tell me how they do it. But they also know that I am quite, I’m very straight, you know, they will not try to be funny with me. Most of the time, they don’t bring me along to steal. Or if they say, like, I’m going to the mamak shop today, and then they give the friend a wink, so I know what they’re doing, I’ll be a bit scared to go also. So for me, I won’t photograph it. But at the same time, I will not report the child.
Bryan van der Beek: But would that be going against obligation for accuracy? Would you be taking a part of the story and showing these youth at risk in a better light than they should be by omitting something that you know is happening?
Tay Kay Chin: The fact that they’re stealing should be part of the story.
Bernice Wong: I think at the end of the day, it depends on what you want to tell the story.
Bryan van der Beek: So in this case, what did you want to tell?
Bernice Wong: So for like this particular story, it’s really about urban poverty but also that like my subjects, they are also very resilient and they always find their own ways to cope, not necessarily like through crime.
Bryan van der Beek: But crime does still play a part. So it is, by omitting that … Again ah, you all will get a lot of this ah, and we are all friends, but we still fight with each other. So but the thing is, you know, it’s going to be very tough. It’s going to be very tough to decide, if you omit it, she says it’s for the greater good of the story. But who, but as a storyteller, you’re telling somebody else’s story, we’re not editing a story – in a way, we are, we try to do a full-rounded view. So do you feel by omitting it that you are not accurately portraying it? You’re showing the good side – they’re resilient – but you’re … And they don’t always have to resort to crime. But they still do. So does that, do you feel that that will impact your work? Imbalance it? It’s not as balanced as it could be.
Bernice Wong: So for example, for this guy who was shoplifting, eventually he went to RTC, so I would find other ways to document. I don’t necessarily need to photograph the crime itself. But probably for example through his … Like when he writes home, like through his prison letters, or when he comes out from RTC, or when he goes or when like his mum goes to visit him, I’ll work that in the caption.
Tay Kay Chin: I remember there was a letter from the police, asking him to report for something?
Bernice Wong: Ya.
Tay Kay Chin: So instead of showing the actual crime in progress, she actually reproduced the letter. So that’s one way of going around it. But there’s also the law side, the legal side of things. I believe if you photograph a crime in progress, the police can come after you and you become a … First you have to choose lah, whether to turn the fella in – ya, I have the documentary proof. Charge them.
Bryan van der Beek: I think that the question we get is not whether you should shoot the crime, but whether you are telling that side of the story. So when you can find something else like the letter or something else to show that, I think that’s fine. That’s part of the job you have, you know, to find balance. To get in, you have to be in with them, so they have to trust you, right?
Edwin Koo: I think the tough part is also like, in the act of photographing, are you abetting them? Are you encouraging them to show you, hey, I can do it? Or are you, or is it your moral duty to tell them, eh, don’t do lah. It’s like …
Tay Kay Chin: But if you stop something, you’re changing the story.
Edwin Koo: If you stop something, you’re changing the story. So my question is, are you galvanising it? Are you like making it, exacerbating it? Are you trying to, do you push the flow forward or … artificially …
Tay Kay Chin: I’m going to throw this out. So let’s assume we say the guy has done it five times. So I did not abet – he has already done it five times. So the sixth time, I’m photographing it. Are you less guilty?
Edwin Koo: It’s the same as the Souvid Datta photo, right? A bit, right? Because she’s a prostitute and …
Tay Kay Chin: Ya, how many of you follow the Souvid Datta controversy? So because there was this prostitute that sells, and therefore the photographer argues that he didn’t encourage her, she was already a prostitute. He was merely witnessing, something like that. If you have time, go back to the survey that we put up. There’s really no right or wrong answer. There are people who say, let him steal, then you go and pay for it. What are the other answers ah? Offer to pay what he takes even before he’s even caught. That, I don’t know, how many of you think that is okay, the first option? Then you stop him immediately. If get caught, then you go and pay for him. Okay? No right or wrong, but let’s move on to another scenario.
Bryan van der Beek: I need to just really wrap it up. There is no right or wrong, right, no matter what decision you make, it’s going to be questioned. Like Bernice felt that not shooting that – and that’s fully within her right – not shooting that would move the story forward in a positive dimension. Tried to, compensated it by showing that something did happen, in terms of the letter. It’s okay, I mean, it’s a way that she’s trying to think about how to incorporate the story without being overly straightforward about it. So I guess when you’re telling stories, when you’re shooting people, you’re shooting families, people are very complicated. It’s good to know which direction you’re going to take, and it’s also good to know that when your work is being shown, when people are seeing it, they’re going to say, eh, why you never stop them from stealing, or how can you encourage this. It is good to be able to defend your work, defend your credibility by trying to fill in as much information as possible. But you’ll always get detractors, so just get use to that.
Tay Kay Chin: Can I just ask, how do people deal with ethics? Like Tom, so you’re stuck in an ethical situation, who do you deal with it, how do you solve it?
Wong Maye-E: There’s a question …
Tay Kay Chin: Yes? Hello.
Audience Man #1: I’ve got a question. You’re witnessing a crime happening, so …
Tay Kay Chin: Are you police?
Audience Man #1: Are you part of the crime? You know that someone is stealing something, so you’re witnessing it, and you allow it to happen. So indirectly, you know the person and you allowed it to happen. Are you part of the crime? You’re doing the crime also, you know. Are you telling me that by photographing it and explain later, I will not be prosecuted by the law?
Tay Kay Chin: It’s a very good question. I did ask a person who’s legally trained. There’s something called accessory, are you an accessory to … According to this guy, who’s not a lawyer yet, maybe he won’t become a lawyer, he say unless you instigate, you encourage him, you are not. But I don’t think that’s the truth lah. I think the fact that you recorded, you are already … At least in the Singapore context.
Tom White: I think again, that’s a good point, it depends a little bit on the local laws, right?
Neo Xiaobin: I know Straits Times …
Tom White: And who you are. Again this idea of like your relationship with the people that you’re photographing, the relationship to the situation. All of these things come into play. So you might get dragged into court, you might have to defend yourself.
Bryan van der Beek: Looking at the same situation, if you saw someone stealing in a shop, a 7-Eleven, and you shoot a video and you post it online, you didn’t stop it – does that make you an accessory?
Tay Kay Chin: We need to move on a little bit. So hang on ah, that question about the law is very important in case the police are here. As far as I know, like, if you work at a US newspaper, it’s very safe. Your newspaper will never feed you to the dogs. The police come, they tell the police go fuck off. They will not say, eh, Tom, come you better go and settle.
Tom White: I’ve broken the law to take photographs.
Tay Kay Chin: In fact, your newspaper will defend you because the, it’s very established. Here, it depends. I don’t know and I don’t want to comment. Yes? You have something to say, right? Yeah, you – no, wait, the person behind.
Audience: XXX something to do with less black and white. Let’s say your subject is about to … I’m going to use a concrete example. Let’s say photographing a cancer patient or someone who’s XXX and he or she tells me that a lot of her time is actually spent going to hospital and praying for people, regardless of whether they ask for it or not. So from a personal point of view, let’s say you don’t agree with her actions. But it’s not, it’s not clearly, like shoplifting, XXX But you have a personal opinion on it. I guess I have 2 questions. One is how do you actually, have you ever been in a situation like that and how do you prevent yourself from shooting it in a way that reflects your own opinion?
Tay Kay Chin: First of all, you cannot photograph in hospital. Joking.
Audience: So for example, you go in, you can photograph in a way that they look like they’re praying… or you can go in and you can try and look for moments where it’s full of hope and it brings a smile and joy. I mean, you’re not influencing it, but you can choose that moment, how you photograph it, and a lot of it might actually be influenced by how you feel about it.
Tay Kay Chin: But are you doing this as a documentary photographer or …
Tay Kay Chin: So you’re not like in the position of a social worker.
Tay Kay Chin: Because the same kind of documentary work can be used by different people. I know of a lot of evangelists, Christian groups, who use photography to spread certain goodness. Their approach is the same, photojournalistic, documentary, they don’t set up things at all. But their purpose is different, their purpose is to spread the good word, their faith. So in a case like this, this person probably would not have a problem that someone is spreading the good news. But if you’re working for a newspaper and then you know that for a medical worker or counsellor to be spreading religion on the side is actually illegal, then you have to decide like, so you have actually documented something that is not right.
Bryan van der Beek: Is she just praying for them or is she trying to convert them? Does she share the good news, that kind of thing or …
Audience Woman #2: Let’s say they go in and they share, but it’s not asked for and it’s…
Tay Kay Chin: It’s a social worker ah?
Audience Woman #2: XXXX … What I’m trying to think of is an example where it’s not black and white against the law, but actually the photographer has a personal point of view on it …
Tom White: You will always have a point of view. You will always have a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view on something, what are you doing? You know. You have to have a point of view on it. It’s a little bit separate from whether or not you take the photograph.
Tay Kay Chin: I will report, I will pose the picture and then say that although it’s illegal, a lot of people do it.
Bryan van der Beek: But I think that goes back to what we said just now about responsibility, you know, there’s no objectivity. But if you know that you have feelings strongly about this …
Tay Kay Chin: No, there’s a person.
Audience: After this, after you finish …
Bryan van der Beek: I mean, if you feel strongly against it and you know that there’s nothing really wrong but it’s just a question of personal prejudice, there is part of you that I feel that you just have to step back and document it for what it is. Because at the end of the day, our personal opinions will affect the pictures, but we’re going to try as much as possible for it to not. I think that your personal, the way you see the event will colour the way you shoot it. But if you know that that’s how you’re doing it, and you know that it’s a [unintelligible] thing, then you should also try and do an alternative. Shoot both and then see how it fits in the narrative. But if it’s going to be … Again, see, no right or wrong, it’s really grey, it’s your personal thing. But now that you’ve mentioned that and let’s say you tell the story and people ask, oh, why are these people doing that, and you say ya, I really don’t like the way they’re doing that, it colours the story. Now when I look at the piece, I’m going to wonder whether your personal prejudices are going to show up in the piece, whether that photograph or something else. You’ve made it very clear that’s how you feel, which is great, and we know what you stand for. But then everybody’s going to take it with a pinch of salt. Is she overexaggerating, is she, because she doesn’t like that, she’s making it even worse than it is. So you can’t please everybody and I guess you want to be true to yourself. More importantly, you want to be true to your subject. So if it’s something that you feel that is, I don’t know, if to them it’s doing good, and in their mindset that’s what it is, it’s doing good for others, then we try to portray it as best as we can based on what they are doing.
Tay Kay Chin: Sorry ah, there are different ways of doing ethics. We call it doing ethics. One of the guideline,es is actually, I’m trying to remember, Judeo-Christian [unintelligible]. And the other one is the Aristotle Golden Mean: do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It sounds like a cop-out lah, basically, you have to think: by publishing this picture, how many people are going to benefit from it, as against the number of people who are going to be affected? The people who are likely to be affected are these volunteers, who will have all their pictures pasted on all the hospital entrance, see these people, don’t let them in. But then, there might be people who say, hey, what’s wrong with sharing the good news, and they might go and champion. There are consequences to this. There are ethics and there’s also law, so they are often very confused. So. I’m going to let her say something, because she’s been raising her hand.
Audience: I raised it once.
Tay Kay Chin: I not very accurate one.
Audience: Can I steer the, can I ask a different question?
Tay Kay Chin: Why not we do that later? Because Edwin just have something to say about the shifting sand, the context.
Edwin Koo: Maybe I just understand a little bit more. So you were there as … Why did you end up in hospital?
Audience: Actually I haven’t decided.
Edwin Koo: Who hires you? Did you do it out of your own will?
Audience: Just to make it as a real example. So I went as a favour for personal photos, and if I go again, it would not be as a favour. It would be sort of, if you want to come then you come. Because this is what we really spend most of our time with. I guess it was presented more as a weekly … but actually it’s a … They really do this 80% of their time. There was no introduction to the subject while I take photos of the subject …
Edwin Koo: So let me just understand a little bit. So you are going to this hospice, is it a hospice?
Audience: I met through a hospice.
Edwin Koo: And they are asking you to offer your skills as a photographer to document these dying patients and pray over them.
Bryan van der Beek: Wait, are you doing this for the hospice or for the personal, the [unintelligible]?
Audience: A nurse in a personal capacity asked me to shoot photos entirely for the subject. This has nothing to do with the hospice.
Bryan van der Beek: So the subject is …
Audience: A woman dying of cancer. XXXX But I would say that given my past experience with hospice, if it extends beyond one interaction it might be XXXX So I don’t actually know how this is going to go. The only person that is going to get photos, for sure, at the end of the day, is the patient, and it’s the person. So the follow-on question: are you interested in following this subject? No one’s requiring it.
Tay Kay Chin: Can I …
Bryan van der Beek: The subject is the nurse, right?
Wong Maye-E: The subject is the nurse?
Audience: The subject is the cancer patient, who’s dying of cancer, spending 80% of her time going to hospitals and …
Tay Kay Chin: Can I offer you something better? My mum was dying of cancer two years ago and I actually did quite a bit of documentary about it. Maybe in the interests of time, I can talk to you later? Okay, because I think there are some things that you may not be comfortable saying it in public, so maybe … Can? You recognise my face, right?
Edwin Koo: Maybe just the framework of the whole thing. Let us not kid ourselves that photography is a unilateral exercise. It’s never that way. It’s always a dance between the photographer and the subject. If you’re in the room, in a hospital room with this person, and you’re photographing from any angle that you want, it means the person has allowed you to do that. So I think there is what we call, one thing which I’m always asked about is, how do you get consent? Consent – this concept of consent is actually very important. A lot of times, we understand consent from a legal point of view: get a model release, get them to sign across the paper, after you sign the paper, I can use your picture in any way I like, to make money, to make advertisements, to make magazine covers, to publish it in my exhibition. But how I always say, how I always advise people is that consent is not signed across the black and white. It’s not set and signed across a line. Consent is usually a mutual understanding and I think in this case, right, you can only start to figure that, how much can you use your photo, once you start going into the process. Right? If after 10 days you all still cannot like see eye to eye, you all still cannot work together, they can’t trust you, you can’t trust them – the answer is obvious.
Tay Kay Chin: But a lot of consent is expressed through body language, by nodding, by actually silence. If you photograph in SGH, seriously, if the nurses saw you photographing and turn away, that means you say you do anything, just don’t let me see. Then you just continue. And usually if you’re photographing your family members, and happened to be a few people in the background, accidentally include the people in the background – that one is okay. But say, let’s talk about it later, otherwise we get stuck here. Yes, we will let you …
Bryan van der Beek: Start a new …
Tay Kay Chin: Take us to another …
Audience: Actually I was going to ask about navigating consent. Specifically to Bernice, I think especially because I do fieldwork and you ask someone … XXX and during the interview … XXX stop the discussion, right? So how does that work in photography, especially for a long-term project? Like you’re following them and you’re constantly navigating that concept.
Bernice Wong: For myself and my subjects, because we’re, we treat each other like family. And I know that they’re very comfortable with me. The mum, she gave me like a set of house keys, you know, any time you want to come over, you can just come, you don’t need me to be at home. So, I mean, for the last 4 years that we’ve been together, it has always been a very comfortable, happy relationship. So I haven’t yet faced any, you know, them saying like why don’t you come another day, or why don’t you stop coming at all. Like Kay Chin said, a lot of it is also body language. When I’m at their place, we just, I don’t photograph all the time. So I just hang out with them and I know that we’re all comfortable with each other.
Edwin Koo: Can I ask a question? Has there ever been situations, because you’re part of the family, right?
Bernice Wong: Yup.
Edwin Koo: You know family asks sometimes very unreasonable things of each other. So have you been asked to sort of, okay, we are strapped for cash, can you like give us some money so that the kids have something to eat? And how then does that, how then does that compromise this whole idea of unwritten consent or trust?
Tay Kay Chin: And also if you lend them money, does it change the dynamic, are you becoming unethical? Will lending them money means that they’re indebted to you, then they will do anything you want?
Bernice Wong: I think at the start of the project, that was something I was very concerned about, whether they would start asking me for money. But then I think like thankfully, right, the people that I photograph, my subject Mel, she’s very resilient, so she doesn’t say like, oh, can I borrow, like, can I borrow $1,000, I have a $1,000 water bill to pay. She will only tell me, like, oh, I have this water bill, but she never ever ask for money. So …
Tay Kay Chin: Is she implying, like hinting?
Bernice Wong: No.
Audience: Can I say something? In this kind of situation, right …
Wong Maye-E: Did you give money?
Bernice Wong: No, I never.
Audience: In this kind of situation, if they were to ask you for money, whether you give or you don’t give, it will change the dynamic. It’s not like, you don’t give, then the dynamic will not change. It has changed already.
Tay Kay Chin: So it is possible to give, and then still be objective?
Audience: I mean, I don’t know because I don’t do this. But I’m just saying that whether you give or you don’t give, if they have asked, it doesn’t really matter. Like, it will still change, right, where even if you don’t give, it will change.
Tay Kay Chin: How many think you can give and still continue to work and you know that they will not be crying more for you or like …?
Edwin Koo: Only one?
Tom White: No, I think it’s possible.
Tay Kay Chin: Three.
Audience: It really depends on context.
Tay Kay Chin: It’s a chance you will take.
Tom White: The thing is, when you’re doing like a long-term documentary, the thing is, you’re already changing, it’s like the whole form of it, you’re already there. Like Sean says, whatever you do, whether you do this or that, whether you take the picture or you don’t take the picture, whether you walk down the street with them, you don’t go shoplifting with them, whatever, you’re always, always, always going to be, there’s a relationship there, which is why, the thing I say at the beginning, for me what’s interesting is that discourse, that social relation around that.
Audience: So I feel that your situation is different from situations here because first of all, you are shooting for yourself what, not shooting for any paper. And also you are with the same people for a much longer period of time. Like you cannot escape that you would change something, I think, and you wouldn’t know, like, you wouldn’t know any other alternative. If you’re going to photograph them for 5 years, you cannot look back and say, what if I wasn’t there, would this not have happened?
Tay Kay Chin: So who you are doing the thing from, for …
Tom White: Has an effect on it.
Tay Kay Chin: Has an effect? So if you’re working for a newspaper, you need to …
Tom White: Cannot.
Tay Kay Chin: So you need to declare.
Wong Maye-E: Cannot.
Tom White: No, if you’re working for the wires or if you’re working for a newspaper, you’ve broken an ethical rule of that particular organisation.
Tay Kay Chin: So that was exactly how Polomi Basu lost her funding – because she paid for a stretcher for one of the victim, I mean, the subject needed to go to the hospital, and she paid for the stretcher. Interesting, right? Personal project, it’s okay because …
Audience: You can do whatever you want what.
Tom White: The Vietnam War photo of the girl who was struck by napalm, right? And she was photographed and she was filmed running down the street by Nick Ut. And afterwards they helped them, they drove them to the hospital and … So it’s okay to take the photograph and then help, like take the picture and then anything that I do now is …
Wong Maye-E: Remember that vulture with the boy? Kevin Carter – and he shot himself because he just couldn’t take all the criticism that … He just shot the picture. Remember that Somalian boy and the vulture was kind of standing there, waiting for him to … And then, and then, but then after taking that picture, he did shoo the bird away, right? But because he got so much criticism, he ended up shooting himself. So luckily Singapore got no gun.
Bryan van der Beek: Can we go back to the …
Tay Kay Chin: Hang on, hang on, hang on …
Audience: That’s a very good one because talking about giving money, right, actually I’ve given before and it completely changes the relationship.
Tay Kay Chin: Ah wait. Gave, and the relationship changed.
Audience Man #4: Ya because people are in a very desperate situation. Once money comes into the picture, the way they view it is different. So I’ve given beforehand, it doesn’t work.
Tay Kay Chin: After that, what happened? You just …
Audience: After that he introduced 3 other people to borrow money from me. He asked me out for kopi. So when I meet him for kopi, he had another friend who wanted to borrow money. And then the mother wanted to borrow money. But I think it changes.
Tom White: Then you become part of the story.
Tay Kay Chin: I know everybody want to go deep and talk about something, but we have like a lot of scenarios.
Bryan van der Beek: I jump in for one point, Kay Chin, sorry. The one about the lady who paid for the stretcher. You choose when you’re in the situation whether you want to be the human or you want to be the storyteller. And if you feel that $50,000, $20,000 in funding that you’ll lose but you’ll save somebody’s life, and that is what you want to do – do it. You know, your ethics is your, your moral compass. If you weigh it … I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong either way, but if you weight the pros and cons, if you weight it in your mind and your mind says, life first, screw the story, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it.
Tay Kay Chin: But do you think that situation could have been better managed if she had declared to the editors?
Tom White: Yeah, I mean, you should be doing that.
Tay Kay Chin: If she had told them at first, this picture is a little bit, I got this situation, I paid for the stretcher.
Tom White: You should be doing that. I mean, that’s why we have in journalism, you have captions and if you file a photograph without a caption that explains the photograph, it won’t be accepted.
Tay Kay Chin: So does it go back to that scenario where we said, I’m just the photographer, let the editors decide.
Tom White: No, because, you know, because you have a certain compunction among yourselves to … Because to a certain degree, the editor might be sitting thousands of miles away, they have no idea what’s going on there. You’re there, you’re at that, in that place, in that situation. It’s absolutely, it’s your responsibility to explain to the editors what that situation is, what’s the before and after of the photograph, what’s the situation, ’cause, you know … And then at the same time, you open a newspaper or a magazine, and you look at a picture and there’s text next to it. You look at the picture, you read the text to find out what the picture is about, right, we all do that. An editor is the same – when they look at the picture, and they … I’ve had foreign correspondent editors say, eh, what’s going on here, I don’t know about this, who’s that person, what’s going on there, because my caption didn’t include that information and they need to know before they make a decision.
Bryan van der Beek: So to follow Kay Chin, yes, the situation could have been managed better. But follow your moral compass lah, at the end of the day. If you cannot live with yourself for doing something, then don’t do …
Wong Maye-E: … so you can sleep at night.
Tay Kay Chin: Sorry. Question number 7 actually happened to be, I was a second-year student in the university. It really caused me a little bit of depression because I was like, take, don’t take, take, don’t take. How it was resolved: a professor saw me looking very down and took me out for coffee and asked me what happened, and I told him the whole thing. And he just said, you have to decide whether you want to be a human being first. You’re allowed to, feel free to buy him some milk or something, subsistence for a few days. Then after that if you feel uncomfortable, you just have to drop the project. So that was exactly what I did. The next day, I bought him a carton of milk and a loaf of bread. And I waited for a few days. I did feel that I had already gotten access. He wasn’t being extra cooperative because I fed him and I continued to work on this story for the entire semester. There was another situation about this aspiring actress. Unfortunately it also happened to me. This was in New York, I was interning in Connecticut. She really had no money to go back. In that case, I was a bastard, I abandoned her and I went back and … ya. I remember calling someone in the newspaper and they said, don’t get involved, if you pay for her then the whole thing will change.
Edwin Koo: I think when you work in the context of a news organisation, I think there are certain things that you need to adhere by and also because of the immediacy and the need for accuracy, there is a very … There are certain scruples that you need to observe. Okay? Whereas like for people who are working on longer term projects, it’s okay to lose that picture for a while and be human for a bit, and then come back and take the picture later. So I think we cannot judge the same kind of situation using the same lens because people go in as a storyteller with different kind of capacities.
Wong Maye-E: You make more choices as the person involved. Because sometimes as a journalist, you don’t have a choice and you just have to do the job. But at the same time, I still hold on to the, we are people first, journalists second, you know. That’s my own personal take. But of course I would not compromise on accuracy. If it’s really an assignment you don’t feel comfortable doing, just tell your editor. Hopefully you won’t get fired. But for me I’m just lucky to be in that position where I can make that choice and it has never really come to that point.
Tay Kay Chin: Does AP fire people for ethical breaches?
Wong Maye-E: Yes. They have no tolerance. If they ever find any photo manipulation, not only do they fire you, they delete everything you’ve ever done for the AP, could be 10 years ago, because like what we talked about the very first thing, your integrity is being questioned. And you cannot be a representative of a photographer that manipulates news while you are giving news to the rest of the world, your whole accountability is gone. There’s no tolerance, you’re fired immediately.
Tom White: We have this myth in journalism and the news that the news is kind of like an oracle of truth, and anything that tries to burst that bubble is difficult to tolerate. So when you have an organisation like Associated Press or you know the big media organisations, they have to put themselves forward in saying, everything that we put out there is verifiable, it is true, we can back it up. So that then, that’s why they issue corrections even though it’s on page 10.
Wong Maye-E: Yeah, exactly, in this day and age, it’s like, speed, you know, how fast you can get the news out is very important, but I think being accurate is more important than being fast. You know, how many nights have you opened social media and then saw this piece of news, and then realised it’s a mistake, you know, something as simple as actually, CNN made a mistake of some guy that was at the marathon, and he was waving a flag, and it looked like an ISIS flag, and so somebody straight away tweeted, oh, like, ISIS member at the marathon – and then after that, they realised it was not, it was just a really badly designed flag.
Tay Kay Chin: What about the Straits Times? Does it have a very strict … If you all ever caught anybody, or what have you all done to the person?
Neo Xiaobin: I don’t think we’ve fired anybody that’s got to do with ethical reasons or like anybody manipulating things. But talking about like breaking rules and then your moral compass, so I just wanted to go back on the fact on the, like, everybody has our own moral compass, and in different context and situations, you decide what is, what to do in that situation, knowing your laws. It’s important to know your laws, it’s important to know like Singapore’s privacy laws. If I was shooting in the middle, I mean, I’ve been in a situation where I’m out on a public, and then I was shooting an accident, and somebody told me to delete my photos, I don’t delete my photos. I mean, I explain to him for a long time and it depends on the same person, whether he …
Tay Kay Chin: That’s law.
Neo Xiaobin: Ya, law. I mean, media law, privacy law. And then another situation … I mean, I’ve broken the laws as well, like Tom. Ya, recording.
Recording person: Yes.
Neo Xiaobin: So I have police record against me. And I think this is a lot of things that we deal with in the newspaper which is the issue of trespass. And but then the thing is, I’ve trespassed and not get caught before, and then got published, and it was about horse abuse. We received an anonymous video from a member of public that was sent to ACRES, like this batch of horses that were being abused in an abandoned shelter near Turf Club. So like, the video we saw it, kind of thing, it was pitch black, they went in as vigilantes, they all wore masks, kind of thing. So in this kind of situation, how do you verify what was happening as the news and that it’s really true and not some, like, staged drama? That, ya. So as news, we needed to verify, and that involved trespassing. For that situation, we were not, we were not caught.
Tay Kay Chin: So you can be ethically right, but legally wrong.
Neo Xiaobin: I mean, according to the eyes of the law, you’re wrong. If we did get caught counting, it would be another record. And it depends on whether the [unintelligible] wanted to press charges and stuff like that. So the other situation that I was caught in involved a foreign worker dormitory and trespassing into the place, and it was about how working conditions were bad. So no company in the right mind would let you go in and say that hey, this is how we’re treating the …
Wong Maye-E: Unless you give the camera to the foreign worker. Remember Chi Yin?
Tay Kay Chin: In this case, ethically we can say that she has done the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and we exposed some bastard employer.
Neo Xiaobin: Ya, but legally in the eyes of the law you’re still wrong. So the police still had to do, take action.
Edwin Koo: The police will tell you it’s not your job.
Neo Xiaobin: I mean, they’ll take down the statement, and then what happened and stuff like that, and would you … And then the question at the end was would you do it again?
Tay Kay Chin: What was your answer? In Malaysia?
Neo Xiaobin: No lah, in Singapore.
Tay Kay Chin: No, you say, I will do it again in Malaysia.
Neo Xiaobin: I said I can’t promise I won’t do it again.
Tay Kay Chin: Can I just revisit the same questions? How do you manage your ethical problem? I see newspaper photographer, I see TV journalist. So you are stuck – what do you do? What do you do? Maybe Edwin, when you have an ethical situation, what, how do you … Meditate?
Edwin Koo: I think I have the luxury of stepping back and thinking about what I’ll do with the picture afterwards. But I think being able to take a step back is very important for any photographer because when we are in the heat of the situation, if you’re a born, if you’re like, if you’re a blue-blooded photographer, you would take the picture – trust me, you will take the picture. But the thing is, then you will think, what do I then do with that controversial picture?
Tay Kay Chin: So I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here. There are a lot of young students, they cannot step back on, they need to call somebody. So how – what do you recommend? Say I’m a student, I’m stuck, I need to finish this homework – who do I call? Seriously. Everybody must have some resources, right? Like for me, I call my teacher. If today it happens to me, I think a bit, if I cannot solve, I will put on Facebook, how ah? Or I might call one of them, one of the guys that I trust.
Bryan van der Beek: I’m sure the students weren’t that sort, they’ll have their contacts. They will know people to call.
Tay Kay Chin: Ya lah, I want to hear them lah.
Edwin Koo: You see, it really depends on the situation again because, you see, when you talk about a case where it’s a shoplifting thing, are you causing any physical harm to anybody?
Tay Kay Chin: No, no, who can they call? How do they get out of this situation?
Bryan van der Beek: How many students here? What would you guys do?
Audience Man #5: I’m studying in Germany and there’s like … There are different … According to what, to the situation or … ?
Bryan van der Beek: If you’re stuck in an ethical problem, how do you react? Do you internalise it, do you call people, do you …?
Audience Man #5: Like generally I think it’s like you said, it really depends on the situation.
Bryan van der Beek: But you would have plenty of people that you could reach out to?
Audience Man #5: Yes, yes.
Tay Kay Chin: Maybe we all should start thinking, who can we call? Like these 3 person. Darren Soh call like Bryan …
Tom White: The thing is you can’t just, the reality is that you never really walk into a situation blind. You know, you always bring something to a situation no matter how inexperienced you are. We have already developed, you know, some kind of moral compass, we’ve already developed some kind of sense of right and wrong. And you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to make the wrong decision, you’re going to take that photograph or not take that photograph, or behave in this way or that way, and, you know, it’s going to turn out bad. Then it’s like how you deal with it. You know, if you take the example of Souvid Datta, he crossed several ethical boundaries in the work that he did, but then he didn’t really own that, he didn’t really accept responsibility for it, and that was the most disappointing thing for me in that situation. If he’d just stepped up and said, look, I made a mistake and I’m going to write it in this way, but no, he tried very, very hard to defend what he did, and to justify what he did, and it wasn’t very convincing.
Darren Soh: And now he just calls himself an artist.
Tom White: Yeah, you know. And you can’t say, aw, I was younger then, because you’re always younger, right. You’ve already developed, come on, you’ve got to stand up and sometimes there is a situation where you break the law or you do something wrong or someone suffers because of something that you did, and you have to, you have to take ownership of that. And you can’t always save face, you know.
Wong Maye-E: You have to learn from experience and a lot of it is through judgement call, and I think your own judgement develops over time, with experience, right?
Edwin Koo: Actually to take up that thought on Souvid Datta, right …
Tay Kay Chin: Can you maybe contextualise this? A lot of people don’t know, like …
Edwin Koo: Sure, sure. Okay, basically he … Souvid Datta worked on a long-term project on brothels and violence in brothels and trying to expose what happened. So in this particular picture, he actually Photoshopped the picture of that mamasan through the mirror, but unfortunately this mamasan is very well-known in this place. I don’t know her name but the photographer was Mary Ellen Mark, who took it in 1978.
Juliana: This is the original picture.
Edwin Koo: In order to make the picture more dramatic. So, well, he won some awards, he got some grants, right? But only much later, people discovered, oh, that is actually … Okay, so that’s number one. And number two …
Tay Kay Chin: And he used the excuse that he was practising …
Edwin Koo: Ya, that he was practising to get consent of this person because this is how the picture is going to look like in the end, and hence you can just be there for me to …
Tay Kay Chin: I want to make a picture like that.
Edwin Koo: Yes. That’s number one. Then number two, he was taking a picture of a, from on top of a prostitute while she was …
Tay Kay Chin: Underaged prostitute.
Edwin Koo: Underaged prostitute while she was serving a customer.
Tay Kay Chin: And he argued that she was doing it anyway.
Edwin Koo: Ya. And it revealed her in full face and it sort of brought up a lot of questions. One of the questions was, if this was done in Europe, would it be shown? That’s number one. And number two, if this was, if he was taking the picture like that, why couldn’t he stop this crime, because it’s against, it’s a crime to have sex with an underaged girl.
Tom White: It actually breaks the … A photograph like that, because she’s underaged, breaks a number of ethical guidelines from organisations …
Tay Kay Chin: Law as well, right?
Tom White: Law, such as European law. Amnesty International. You can depict an act, an illegal act involved an underaged person. But the fact of them being a minor, they cannot give informed consent. So you can’t, like he can say, oh, she gave me consent, which is what he did, you know, I’ve talked to her, I went through the motions of getting to know her, gaining the trust. It’s like, no, actually, she’s an underaged minor, she cannot give informed consent under the law. So you have to hide her identity.
Edwin Koo: So this guy, he actually got a lot of awards and grants for his work …
Tay Kay Chin: They were all withdrawn.
Edwin Koo: Until they were … ya, withdrawn and exposed. And I was trying to pick up that line of thought because, I’m not trying to defend him ah, but the thing is, I can, I know that for a young photojournalist of his age, in this day and age when magazines are closing down and there’s very little money out there, it’s very hard for you to stand out as a photojournalist. And hence people are covetous of grants and awards and all that to make themselves stand out. And because of that hunger, because that hunger that has become worse over the last 10 years, that probably might have driven him to do a lot of these unethical things that he has done. I’m not defending him, again, I’m not saying that it’s right. But I’m trying to give the context.
Wong Maye-E: But doesn’t mean you want to be famous means you cheat your way up there, right?
Bryan van der Beek: There’re many more examples …
(To be continued)
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