Tara Pixley on Ethical Photojournalism and the Importance of Media Literacy

Nov 20, 2020

Dr. Tara Pixley and award-winning photojournalist and professor. Her work focuses on rethinking visual representations of gender, race and sexuality. We talked with  her about her work covering the Black Lives Matter movement, about the lack of diverse representation in the news media , and about the line between documentation and exploitation. 

To view some of Tara's work, click here

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FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Dr. Tara Pixley is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Pro Publica, an assistant professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, Tara's photographic and scholarly work focuses on rethinking visual representations of gender, race and sexuality. She's currently working on a book that chronicles the move toward equity and inclusion in the visual journalism industry. Tara is part of the 2020 Journalism Speakers Forum through the Penn State Bellisario College of Communications. Tara Pixley, welcome to Take Note. 

Tara Pixley: Thank you for having me. 

Fenton: You've written that photojournalism, at its best, has the power to inspire empathy. But that photojournalist should also understand that there's potential to use image-making in a way that can actually otherize and dehumanize. How do you navigate the challenge of photographing in a way that builds connection rather than actually contributing to that disconnection?

Pixley: It's not that hard. It's something that some select photographers are pushing back and saying, you know, “We shouldn't be expected to do that work, or we can't do that work.” But the truth is, that is the work we need to be doing. And it isn't that difficult. What we need to do is be critical thinkers, that's what it is, it's the difference between sort of mindlessly thinking that you have the right to people stories, that you have the right to be in places that you can just do whatever you feel you need to do to get the story. And that kind of framework of thinking that allows people to work in that way, it's automatically problematic, it's automatically going to produce, you know, negative interactions with the people that they're photographing with the kind of stories that they're telling. And, if we instead are critically thinking about our role as visual storytellers, our role of being in people's lives, if we're recognizing that it is a privilege to be in someone's life and tell their story, it is a responsibility to communities and individuals and to wield that power of telling their story, if we are doing that work as photojournalist of recognizing the power and the privilege of our position, then it isn't hard to think about how do I make sure that I'm being careful and thoughtful in my engagement with this story. And you can't avoid everything, you know, some things are out of your control. But the bare minimum that you can do is be critically engaged with your own process with your own situation, your own relationship to power with the people that you are photographing. I think it also is about being educated. If you are educating yourself about the socio economic and socio political realities of not just who you know, and what you've experienced, but also of the world that you're hoping to be a part of, and photograph, if you're walking into these situations thinking, “Oh, these poor oppressed people, or these poor victims, I'm going to photograph them and I'm going to show the world their story,” you already don't understand their story. You already are coming from your position of privilege, where you don't recognize that you have that privilege, you're not recognizing, you know, your kind of potentially false conceptions of who these people are. So, if we are doing that work of saying, “OK, this is an experience I've never had, but I want to tell the story, because the story deserves to be told, these people deserve to live a better life, they deserve freedom, they deserve clean water, whatever it is, then my job is to try my best to understand what their life is and looks like,” and then try to make the connections in my images and in my captions and whatever content I'm working with as a photojournalist, my job is to make it clear to an audience who can't physically be present to see for themselves to make it clear, not just what is happening, but why that has happened. What does this mean, and how can they relate to it? You know, what, what ultimately goes wrong, I think is when we make that mistake of thinking that we don't have to understand deeply what someone's lived experience is, and then we write that into our images.

Fenton: From a very tangible level, can you give an example of a subject and describe how that that same subject might be photographed in a way that tells a fuller story that really humanizes the persons whose story you're sharing versus how that same photo might be taken in a way that perpetuates stereotypes or tells us an incomplete story?

Pixley: You know, I'll use an actual example. At the risk of… I tend to avoid calling out particular photographers and instead focus on the institutions, because I think it's unfair. But I, but I'm, that's my sort of caveat because I am going to kind, of I'm not going to name anyone, but I'm going to call out a particular project. So, there were two stories that came out recently one from Nat Geo, and one from New York Times Magazine, about hunger in America. And so, these stories were very similar in terms of the content. But the visuals, like the images that went along with the stories were radically different approaches. In one, in one version of the story, the images are all like using flash straight on of children staring into the camera, like they're in these very dirty homes, or they're at these tables with minimal amounts of food, you know, it was very on the nose. I like to start with how this is actually bad journalism, like just the way it's being done is typically not good journalism. So, I'm telling the story as best as I could. And also, you know, like, that's the first issue and also, the way that you're using representation in imagining communities is very othering, you're highlighting the victim narrative, instead of trying to understand these people as whole people who happen to be poor, who happened to be, you know, in a bad spot in their life, or who happened to be really hungry. But there's still people who have very complete lives beyond this one particular thing that they're experiencing. And it's our job to actually try and again, connect the audience to those people, you want audiences to see themselves in whatever you are photographing, whoever you're photographing, and they can't see themselves in this, like, you know, a photo of a dirty child on the floor. So those images really relied on these visual tropes of poor people of poverty, and just kind of highlight it over and over again, look, they're poor, look, they're hungry. Look, they're dirty. And not only is that such a played way of photographing these sorts of stories, like, you know, I'm bored, but also, why would you continue to reproduce that sort of social imaginary of poverty in America, it's far more complex than that? And then we have the National Geographic approach. And it was this vivid rendering of families that are struggling, but they're surviving, they're together that you know, there are images of people out in the world, not just in a dirty kitchen, not just using these like visual narrative shortcuts to establish poverty, they were showing something beyond that these people living lives, they're working jobs, they're with friends, they're their people. And they also go home and are hungry. And that is what makes it a powerful story. Because then it makes you think, like, “Oh, my, my buddy Joe, at my job, he could be going home and being hungry. There are, you know, that child I saw at the playground who seemed happy, but maybe they aren't getting enough to eat.” That's the thing that motivates people to look at the world differently to say, maybe I don't understand, or everything that is going on. Maybe there's other information out there for me to get maybe I should see if people in my neighborhood are hungry, instead of just thinking, “Well, those other people, of course, poor people are hungry because they're poor. But that's not my lived experience. And, and I don't know anyone like that, right?” That just reproduces this lack of empathy, rather than making it possible for people to reimagine what they think they know about their neighbor.

Fenton: Going back to this idea of the power you have, when you're pointing the camera at a person or community or an event, you write about that power. And that practice of being a responsible journalist as a collaborative process between the photographer and the person or community being photographed. What does it mean for it to be a collaborative process?

Pixley: This is a this is a difficult kind of thing to explain, because I think that it changes depending on the situation. Sometimes you're just taking a portrait, and I do a lot of portrait work. I love portraits. I love connecting with people and talking to them. I explain what I'm doing. I show them images, I say, “Is this like, not like, do you like this picture of yourself? But do you feel like this is representative of who you are?” And because I don't want to publish images that people can't even recognize themselves in in a bad way? You know, it's great if people are like, “Wow, I didn't know I could look that great.” Cool. I did it. But I want people to see the photos I take of them and say, “Yeah, yeah, I like that, like that. That that is representative of my experience that I had.” And I think you know, I feel like there are probably a lot of photojournalist who'd be horrified to hear me say this, because we're so precious about our work as if like, if we share it with people, then somehow, we've ruined the journalistic intent. But I actually think that that's an incredibly problematic and really imperialistic approach to photography. If, if someone is saying, “Please come into my home, let me share my story with you.” Why can't I say here's some of the images I took, “Do you… do you connect with any of those?” I've never had anyone be like, “I hate you. Get out!” You know, “You took terrible photos of me!” That never happens. Instead, people will be like, “Um, you know, actually, I want to take a few more where I'm smiling.” Like, OK, cool. People always think they look better when they're not smiling. It's not true people look better when they're smiling. Great. So, you just, you're giving someone an opportunity to be a part of that with you. And so that that's like, in the portrait sphere, which is also less complicated. That's an easy thing to do. But when you're telling stories with like more nuance and complexities, and you're trying to capture and document like events and things that are going on, I'm not walking up to people then and saying, “Hey, how do you feel about this photo?” Like, no, that doesn't, that's not realistic. And I don't have time for that. So, I won't say that I, you know, give everyone the opportunity to look at the images that I take. But what I do do is always… I'm explaining who I am, what I'm doing, when I'm taking photos for what my approach is, I don't ever want anyone to see the images that I've taken and say, you know, “That's not what I thought was happening.” I'm talking about being in community with people whose stories I'm being allowed to tell. And that is a totally different relationship to power into image making then photographing people who have power and are abusing it. So just to clarify those two points.

Fenton: And this, this needs to build that trust in the communities you're photographing starts to get into the issue of representation. And, as we look historically at photojournalism and some of the images we see, and we think about who's taking those versus who's being featured, I want to speak about representation in this industry. But also, I would think that the need for conversation, and that trust in that collaborative process is likely higher when you have someone who might be outside of a specific community going into that community. So, whether we're talking about a community of color, queer communities, if someone is coming without that lived experience into that community, I guess, is it is it possible for them to be… or how can they be responsible in what they're portraying of that community? 

Pixley:  Yes, I mean, I think it is absolutely possible for outsiders do a community to tell the story of that community. I do not subscribe to this idea that black people should photograph black people and white people shouldn’t… I think that that's ridiculous. What we all should do, however, is be aware of our biases, the limitations of our understanding our potential relationships, to stereotypes and visual tropes. And we should keep thinking about that and returning to it as we're photographing. At the same time, outsider perspectives are incredibly useful for identifying, you know, different relationships. So, I recognize and appreciate and respect that, that like, outsider perspective, and the possibility for, you know, potential new understandings that an outsider perspective gives, that doesn't mean that outsider perspectives are, are better, it just means it's a point of view that should be brought into conversation with other points of view. And that's also it's like, you know, I'm a, I'm a queer, black woman, I can go and photograph other queer black women and still not know their entire lives, right? Like, I can connect with what it might be like to live their life as them, but I'm not living their life. And so, I'm always still in some level of an outsider positionality to whoever it is, I'm photographing no matter how similar our like, you know, life situations might be. And the problem has not been that, oh, you know, white people, or white men or men get to photograph and tell all the stories, and they shouldn't get to do that. That's not the problem. The problem is that everyone should get to do that we should all be able to have a variety of perspectives. You know, I deserve that as an audience member, I deserve to see a lot of different representations of people in my news media so that I can have a better grasp on the world.

Fenton: If you're just joining us. This is Take Note on WPS you I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton and our guest is Dr. Tara Pixley, an award-winning photojournalist and professor. Do you think it's possible to be too close to a topic or a person or a community in a way that maybe you run a risk of losing objectivity?

Pixley: No, I think that that is B.S. Um, I also think that this this journalistic norm of objectivity is B.S. scholars and academics have been pointing out how completely impossible an objective viewpoint is. And what objectivity actually means when we say that in journalism is a male, white Western, middle class, homogenous viewpoint. And anything that isn't coming from that is not objective. That's what we mean when we say objective. And that flew under the radar of acceptability for a very long time because there were there weren't enough people in the newsroom who were you know, I'm calling B.S. on it and saying, you're going to be in the middle of a war photographing people who are being murdered, and say, I have no feelings about that I'm going to take a neutral stance on this, that's a lie. It just isn't real. Nor should you, right? What we should do is be ethical in our approach, and make sure that our personal biases and personal understandings of the world are not interfering in our ability to tell true and complete stories, that should be the highest order of journalistic production. And that is going to shift and change based on our relationship to the story. Because again, we're all coming from different places, different understandings of the world. And so, if we honor that, because that's the other thing is, when you're pretending to be objective, you don't have to critique your own biases, you can say, “I'm not biased.” And that's actually how bias gets written into it, because you don't have to think about it. When you acknowledge, “OK, I am the child of immigrants. And I'm a first generation American. So my relationship to blackness in America and my relationship to immigration is different than even a black American who is African American, and who is descended from enslaved people, I need to acknowledge that my relationship to race is also different based off of me being a light skinned mixed person, I need to acknowledge that.” And acknowledging it makes it possible for me to do my job better. It doesn't make me a bad journalist; it makes me a better journalist.

Fenton: We look to journalists and photojournalists to shed light on important issues. But there can be at this blurry line that comes up when we're thinking about documentation versus exploitation. Recently, we see citizen-recorded content popping up where someone is documenting a black death, such as the case with George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery. One might argue that this has helped galvanize activism around these issues. But, at the same time, you know, these are images of events that are traumatic and triggering, and things that the families might wish to keep private. So, how do we draw the line or find the balance between documenting and publicizing these tragedies, but also being respectful of the fact that these are very tragic moments that have been captured on camera?

Pixley: And this is a thing that, you know, there's no good answer to it. It's a thing that a lot of people are talking about right now, critical race scholars and visual culture scholars and just the general public. And the thing that I think is really important to pay attention to is the reason why people rely on these videos and photos of, of black death and black harm and injury is because they don't believe us, when we tell them, You shouldn't have to see a video anymore, you shouldn't have to see a photo it is clearly a fact it has been shown over and over again. So, we don't need to see more videos, you should just be acting the you know, government should be acting, people should be in the street, your fellow citizens, your friends, your colleagues, your children's friends, they're being murdered. They're being terrorized. They're being targeted. And it is evident. There's enough evidence. And so, I think the problem like we're asking essentially the wrong question. Why do we need to keep proving over and over again, with visual evidence to make people know that this is a problem? And also, in the end, it actually doesn't matter. Like, no matter how many times these videos happen, the photos happen… I was thinking about this this morning, actually, what does the evidence matter? It ultimately doesn't. We live in a racist society. It's a racist country, it doesn't matter how many times we show you videos and photos of it. So, you know, there is no easy answer to that. I don't think we should have to see any more photos or video because I'm not confused about what this is. And obviously, again, it you know, it doesn't seem to be effective in moving people toward action. So, I wish we would stop asking that question of how do we balance these things? And just say like, when will it actually be enough? That's the question, why should we see these anymore? We shouldn't have to. 

Fenton: And this brings me to my next question about you and your work. I mean, you're covering things like Black Lives Matter where you yourself are on the frontlines to bearing witness to racial violence and other very disturbing things. How do you protect yourself? I guess, I mean, physically is one thing but emotionally, you know, what kind of boundaries do you have to put in place to separate Tara the photojournalist from just Tara the human being?

Pixley: I made choices not to, you know… I'm not the kind of photojournalist and I never have been that runs toward danger that you know, wants to be in conflict zones. That's not the kind of stories I want to tell. I value the people who have the courage and the capacity to do that work. That is not my interest in photojournalism. I'm always more interested in what is happening behind or alongside all those things I care about community I care about radical joy, though, the like spaces of people surviving and thriving together despite oppression or you know, the forces that tried to take away their lives and their livelihoods and their joy. So that is what I tend to photograph. And because that's what I am drawn to, and, and where my interest lies, I am rarely in physical danger. I also make that choice, because I have two children, and I don't ever want to say, you know, “Mommy can't come home because she's in jail,” or maybe, you know, even worse, not be able to ever come home. So, there's no story that matters more to me than coming home to my children. And because of that, when I started photographing the protests, I wouldn't stay out at night, I would come back when things were clearly starting to ramp up and police would start moving into formation. We had very swiftly instituted curfews in LA and I understood two things. One, that I as a photojournalist was still at in danger of being attacked by police, or other agitators, you know, these militias who are pretending to be in service to democracy but are actually fascist thugs. And so, I knew that staying out after curfew or after dark meant that I was vulnerable to being attacked by other police or militias. And secondarily, that any images that I took after curfew could be used to criminalize people in the photographs. The sheer fact of being, you know, out after curfew made us illegal. And that was the point of curfew, right? Whatever you like… “It's for safety.” It's not, it's to be able to criminalize people. I didn't feel more safe with the curfew, I actually felt less safe. It was terrifying.  The police helicopter circulating and like sirens throughout the night didn't make me feel safe. So, you know that that was a choice that I made to go home? Did that mean that I didn't get any photos of burning things and police brutality? Yes, I did not get images of those. Do I feel bad about that? No, I there were plenty of, mostly men out there taking those photos, mostly white men, you know, and that's, that's important. I think that people should do that work, I want them to do it critically, you know. The things that I respect are the images that I've seen of people who made some effort to protect the identities of the people, they were the protesters they're photographing, after curfew. And so those images, I think, are incredible, because they're clearly taking care, you know, they're putting their own lives on the line, but they're also thinking about what these images can do in the world. And in terms of you know, so that's how I protect myself physically. Also, I'm like, always paying very close attention to what's happening. I skirt the action, you know, rather than being right in the middle of something, I will tend to be on the outside so that if I need to back up quickly or escape or evade then I can. And, in terms of mental health, I photographed protests all throughout June. And then I stopped partially because they were dying down a little bit. They've since started picking back up. But I just, I needed a minute. And I wanted to like really take some time to think about what this work is doing. I think I'm going to probably start photographing protests again. But it's also just it's dangerous to be a journalist who isn't with an organization. One of the things that was happening is news organizations were still hiring their typical roster of, you know, primarily white male or white photojournalists, and paying them and giving them the safety and security of having like the name of this big news organization. But then they were hitting up, me and other black photographers of black female photographers and saying, “Hey, did you get any photos from that protest? We'll license it from you.” And that tactic, you know, might work for some 20 something has never been published. But I've been in this industry for 20 years, like, I'm not impressed by that. And you're, you know, $150 you offer free image when I already put my life on the line, just so that you can say, look, we did a story around these black photographers, like, that's actually B.S. And when I saw how much that was happening, then I made an executive decision that I needed to take myself out of that kind of situation. Because it was, you know, it was really problematic. I'm photographing it because I think it matters because I am… I'm like, you know, drawn to do that. And I want to be a witness to history, but I'm ultimately putting my life in danger because I don't have the protection of these major news organizations and even with that protection Black journalists, especially, were being targeted and you know, a photojournalist lost in the eye. And that kind of thing hearing that was really… I can't lose an eye for a spec shoot that you might give me $100 for. I'm not losing an eye for that, like, I'm not losing an eye for anything, but I'm definitely not losing an eye for that.

Fenton: So, we're talking a lot about the practice of professional photojournalism, but the way we get our news is changing. And we have now wider access to smart cameras and these platforms to post pictures or videos that we take. So, we're all kind of in this business of documenting daily life in a way that maybe we haven't been in the past. What responsibility comes with that for us, just as private citizens, even if we just think we're taking these personal photos, but we're still sharing them and distributing them? 

Pixley: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think that there's honestly no easy answer for that. Because the thing that we need, as a society is to have digital media and visual media literacy ingrained in children from a very young age. This is something that I teach constantly in my classes, how is meaning made? How is visual information conveyed? We wait until people are 18, 19, 20 years old, if that, you know, that's if they self-select to take the kind of classes in college that teach them that; we wait until everyone is an adult, essentially, to start talking to them about critically engaging images and what images mean, and how they make meaning. Those conversations need to happen in kindergarten, in first grade, because studies show that children have ingrained implicit biases and ingrained understandings of race and sexuality and gender by age five. So, all of that work is happening pre-verbal, you know, but they do understand images. And so, everything from advertising to Disney cartoons to news media, it's all constantly reproducing ideas of race, and sex and gender, and class and all of these things. So, I think that if we were teaching people how to be critical thinkers how to be visually literate, early on, then we would have so much more of an interesting and robust engagement with citizen circulated imagery. Because we haven't done any of that. There are a lot of people that are just reproducing the same kind of played visual tropes that they've seen. And they think that it is valid, you know, they think it is the right way to visually imagine people because they see all the award-winning images or doing that they see it on the front page of the New York Times. So, why wouldn't they reproduce that? I hope that ultimately, we’ll get more and more cognizant. And then there will be, you know, a groundswell of recognition of this so that people kind of start to get it and say, “This photo is maybe not seeing what I want it to say or what I think it says.” But that's going to be a very gradual thing. 

Fenton: Tara Pixley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Pixley: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to be able to have a conversation about these things I care so much about.

Fenton:Dr. Tara Pixley is an award-winning photojournalist and professor. Her work focuses on rethinking visual representations of gender, race and sexuality. For more on Tara's work, visit wpsu-dot-org-slash-take note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

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