Politics, power, photography and people

Drug addicts. Bronx. Vulnerability. Exploitation. Power. Journalism.

The Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) is running a show. Here’s the message they sent to documentary photographer Chris Arnade explaining his inclusion:



Apologies for the late email, we are putting together a show on short notice and just finalizing the lineup.

On Saturday we will open up our Altered Images exhibition, which examines posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography. A number of people had suggested we include your work of substance abusers and sex workers.  We have reviewed your work.  You qualify on a number of levels and will be included.

You admit to paying your subjects, which violates one of the most closely held tenets of documentary photography. Paying to photograph any person, particularly one dependent upon drugs, and even driving them to buy drugs, as you say you have done, is a clear breach of ethics and standards.

I see that you say claim, in interviews, an exemption from journalistic and documentary standards by saying you are not a journalist.  Yet you publish your photos in the Guardian, one of the world’s most prestigious media outlets.  Ethical guidelines apply.

A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”

Your photos of sex workers, some addicted to drugs, some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused, exposing their breasts or bent naked over a bed, are a breach of this standard.  The fact that you also publish these photos on Flickr, to be gawked at by thousands, raises further ethical issues too numerous to address here.

Briefly, people who are paid by you, under the influence of drugs or mentally impaired (and in many cases have little understanding of The Guardian or Flickr), clearly do not have the ability to give informed consent to their photos being used as you have done.

We will include a caption under your photo outlining these ethical breaches.  If you so choose, you can send us up to two paragraphs in response and we will give it equal weight next to our caption.

I’m ccing our lawyer, Don Dunn, in case you have any legal issues you choose to raise.


Arnade responds here, and his response is worth reading to gain some sense of the issues under discussion.

This is the type of image that the BDC apparently object to:


Only thing is this image is not by Chris Arnade, but by Magnum’s Bruce Gilden. He has many images of a similar ‘intimate’ nature.

Remember that phrase in the BDC’s letter to Arnade about “vulnerable subjects” ? No? Here, read it again:

A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”

Ok, “respect and dignity.”

But Gilden’s work is not included in the Bronx Documentary Center’s line up. Presumably because he doesn’t (apparently) confess to occasionally paying his subjects.

However, do they give informed consent? I have no idea.

How about images used without consent due to mental incapacity? BDC are concerned about those too: (quote)

“…some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused…”

Here you go: from Robin Hammond’s series ‘Condemned’


Do you think the (un-named) mentally ill (or mentally handicapped) ‘patient’ pictured here gave informed consent? I doubt it. Does that matter? For some people, yes. For others, probably not. The BDC for reasons known only to themselves have not included Hammond’s work either, in their catch-all “vulnerable subjects”.

And here’s Arnade’s work. Used with the subject’s consent, and the story behind it here.


Do I like Arnade’s work, or Gilden’s or Hammond’s for that matter?

Good question.

I recognize the photographer’s skill as image makers. But more than that I recognize something they all share in common, an interest in the human condition in all its forms and a willingness to interact with it. Their work is direct and engaged (and issues of informed consent/exploitation aside) as a reflection of the world we live in there’s a lot of it that makes me very very uncomfortable. Which is perhaps as it should be.

But more than that, in all of their work I see a connection with the people they photograph, you can’t be this close to people without them responding to your presence, and for the most part I see some acknowledgment from their subjects of the photographer’s proximity, and in some instances an active engagement with the photographic process.

These photographer’s willingness to wrestle with portraying the difficult issues of drug addiction, mental illness, or mental handicap and their subsequent use of the work is very contentious, and open discussion about this is healthy and important.

Sadly however the Bronx Documentary Center, for whatever reasons, and despite their morally superior tone towards Arnade, are not interested in engaging with the ethical conundrum such work presents. Gilden and Hammond could both be included in their ‘Altered Images’ show, but it seems its only Arnade, and unless I’m mistaken its because he openly admits he offers money and personal support to his subjects.

So its the money the BDC objects to. Giving it to subjects is wrong.

But making money from subjects? Seems profiting as a consequence of photographing (possibly vulnerable) subjects is ok though, nobody is bothered about that, not at all:



There’s a real debate to be had around all this. BDC had a fantastic opportunity to get in about issues of representation, power, the politics of documentary photography and exploitation, but they dropped the ball. In fact maybe I’ll send them this FANTASTIC card to tell them that.

But leave it blank.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (38 Comments)

  1. It’s about time someone brought this up the way you did. Understanding how the real world works on the streets and so forth can sometimes mean you will be asked by certain individuals for support, which by no means equals compensation. Why should “artists” be free to make money out of people who unwittingly or unsuspectedly became subject matter in “product” they display and sell under the pretext of art? This is a reason I admire photographers who make an effort to give back to the folks or communities they document even if this gratitude is expressed in the form of a mere print given freely to an individual a portrait was made of.

    Much of what we call photography today is or borders on being exploitative, especially street photography. Few photographers really manage to convey a sense of human connection. I was recently asking questions to myself about where I wanted to take my own photography and what could be missing in my work. Going down a list of photographers whose work I admire I realized that I was drawn to exactly this: their ability to put the observer in contact with their subject matter, to stir empathy in the viewer. Some of the images made simply could not have been produced if the photographer had not established and developed a relationship with the person or people photographed.

    It appears that the BDC ignores that exchanges of all types is something that characterizes or governs relationships. I like to do street portraiture; I have been asked by some folks what’s in it for them? This is quite honestly a very good and fair question. I admit I don’t pay these folks, but if it were a street vendor or something of that nature I might purchase something they sell in the spirit of mutual cooperation. I have made photos of some folks here in Mexico City I know I can find and have every intention of printing their photos and handing it to them the next time we meet. I don’t see how following what is basic human convention would harm what I do as a photographer.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for commenting Luis. Its a complex issue, one with a multitude of shades of grey, not, as BDC would have us believe a black/white issue, one where ‘giving is bad’ and ‘not giving is good’. The issue is more nuanced than that.

      For me it comes down to intent. If your motive to NOT give your subject any ‘compensation. (in whatever form that is expressed) is exploitative, then is that any worse than actually giving something? No of course not.

      Exploitation is exploitation however it occurs, and often the best judge of that is not the photographer, nor the gallery owner nor the critic, but the subject.

      Robin Hammond’s work makes me intensely uncomfortable but it’s important that his work on mental illness and handicap in Africa is seen. The debate around the rights of those photographed to give consent to being photographed is a good starting point for the more important debate around the abysmal ‘care’ and inhumane ‘treatment’ many of these people must endure.

      That we cant seem to find the appetite to engage fully with that debate is a real shame.

      • Jimmy says:

        “That we cant seem to find the appetite to engage fully with that debate is a real shame.” Who is shutting debate down i don’t understand? Theres two different point of views, both have had there say! The exhibition was all about grey areas which is what the panelists discussed. Just because some of us think that Chris’s work isn’t in a grey area but is wrong, does not mea were shutting down debate! Your arguing that he’s fine working the way hes doing why would i say your article is shutting down debate?

        • John MacPherson says:

          Dearie me Jimmy. You’ve prompted me to respond when I said I’d not. But I”m not going to have you blatantly misrepresent me.

          You just accused me of saying:

          “Your arguing that he’s fine working the way hes doing”

          No I am not. Is that so hard for you to understand. I’m not saying that. I havn’t said it, nor even implied it in any conceivable way in anything I’ve written.

          All I’ve said is there’s a whole broad swathe of ethical murk surrounding all of this and can we widen the debate to look at it. Do you understand that?

          • Ok, sorry to hijack but,

            I see that there is a group of people that have serious issues with Arnade and they are bringing his work into examination (in agreement with the BDC or not). The main motivation, I suppose, is to discredit him (due to his popularity).

            I think they have the right to try to do that if they feel that his work has a negative effect on their community and their right to represent themselves.

            Now, I appreciate that John MacPherson (and others) want to bring a wider, more general debate on photography, ethics, power, exploitation, race, etc. but I believe that this, even if it is related to the issue on hand, is seen by those pointing at Arnade as a smoke curtain to the specific scrutiny, analysis and critique they are looking for.

            In other words, John, you say you want to have a debate, but you don’t take position on the Arnade’s case… so I think the best way to participate in this ‘debate’ is to take position:

            If you are against the work. Why? for it’s exploitative nature, for the nudity, for the money involved, etc.

            If you validate the work. Why? for it’s aesthetic, because it empowers those depicted, because it can help a wider global audience, etc

            If you not necessarily vindicate the work but defend or understand the right of Arnade and (artists in general) to pursue their vision without being hold back by society’s cynical standards. Then to what extent this work is really pushing boundaries or how cutting-edge it really is? or is it just another banal, sensationalist body of work that borrows all the clichés of the ‘despair porn’ aesthetic.

            PS. just in case you ask why I’m not taking a stand, no need to yet 🙂
            I have been occupied with this only regarding Arnade’s work. By enquiring about what we get or not get from the work, what it at stake or by trying to mediate between those involved in the conversation…

            So far the only one officially engaged supporting Arnade’s work is himself (?)

          • John MacPherson says:

            Sorry but its been made abundantly clear to me directly by the BDC on FB that my participation in this debate, as an ‘outsider’, is not relevant nor wanted. Therefore adding anything further here is a waste of my (valuable) time.

            They have their agenda, and have openly admitted to me, again on FB, that there are ‘discussions’ around this issue that I am not privvy to, so I’m content to leave them to it.

            Do I personally like Arnade’s work? No. Not all of it. Some of it makes me intensely uncomfortable.

            But lets not lose sight of the fact that BDC put the spotlight on Arnade, not me. They singled him out, for a variety of reasons, and polarized the debate to one of insider/outsider.

            So as an ‘outsider’ I’m out.

  2. “Dropped the ball” – indeed. There is a real debate to be had around the issue of representation, participation and power in documentary photography. Yet as you point out, opportunities to engage in such a debate are often not taken. The industry appears more comfortable discussing the ethics of digital manipulation of images than the more challenging issue of its often exploitative relationship with its subjects/participants. Why? I suspect few wish to open a can of worms that would challenge much of the methodology and economy that the industry has been based on for decades. Yet unless this debate takes place, and reform happens, it will look more and more anachronistic in an age where production and dissemination are increasingly democratised.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for adding your voice Robert. Yes I agree, I get utterly perplexed by the hand-wringing over all of this “is the image manipulated” rather than “are we the viewers being manipulated, or was the subject manipulated”.

      This recent post: https://www.duckrabbit.info/2015/06/fact-fiction-manipulation/ explores some of that. This whole issue of ‘engagement’ and whether recompense is offered (and accepted) and precisely what that act implies, is a huge troubling elephant in the room in my opinion. And its one we need to start thinking about.

  3. Theo LeSieg says:

    I must be missing something – why not just not include his work, if they feel like it violates ethical standards? To include it and ‘include a card that outlines the ethical breaches’ seems petty, punitive, and vindictive.


  4. Shaun Shelly says:

    Thanks for this post. I think that there are some factions in the Bronx that have been anti-Arnade for some time. They have accused him of implying that the Hunts Point is all drugs and sex work. This is another way of attacking his work.
    I work in the field of addiction and with drug using populations in Cape Town, South Africa. Some may recognise South Africa as the home of Kevin Carter who took the photo of the vulture stalking a starving child. Kevin committed suicide shortly after that photo was taken – some feel that the criticism he faced for not doing more contributed to his suicide.

    While the ethics issue is complex, I was attracted to Chris Arnade’s work because of his compassionate approach and because of the longitudinal and narrative nature of his work. He humanises his subjects and portrays them as more than what most people see – “prostitutes” and “addicts”. He is able to demonstrate both their vulnerability and strength. These complex portraits are difficult for many viewers to observe – it is easier to dismiss these people us one-dimensional

    I often reference Arnade’s work to students and colleagues so they can get an understanding of the lived experience of this population. It is a very effective tool for teaching what cannot be easily described.

    If Chris Arnade was able to present this work, to capture these images, without entering into a relationship with the subjects it would be, for me, very disturbing. It would be exploitative. So, even if thing the work is unethical because it fails to tick certain boxes, it is moral and right. And empowering to the subject. It makes them human.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for reading, and for commenting Shaun. Your observations are spot on – as I mentioned in the post the ‘connection’ between photographer and subject cannot be overlooked, and certainly not dismissed so readily as the BDC have done.

      As well as being a professional photographer I have been a Social Worker in disability services for over 20 years. I’ve seen at first hand the complexity of vulnerable individual’s lives and the abject failure of both the ‘system’ and wider society to understand that their needs are not easily met. Often issues around sexuality and sexual frustration, self-image, self-harm, and familial abuse impacting on people’s lives, but off the radar of the general population.

      Arnade’s work makes me distinctly uncomfortable, Gilden’s even more so. But their engagement head-on with a sector of society that most people are afraid of is a powerful reminder that life is complex, need is varied, but human ‘connection’ is important through all of it.

  5. dawn says:

    I may not be well versed on ethics of documentary photography but what I can say for certain is that Chris Arnade helped save my life. He did this not knowing he did and while being 3000 miles away. At a time I can most certainly say was the most depressing time in my life I was mindlessly looking at photos on the internet when I came across one of his photos, the photo itself was so expressive it just about took my breath away. Then I read the story that accompanied the photo and for the next several hours I looked at photos and read stories. I have continued to do this now for several years. I have never once felt that anyone that Chris photographed was exploited in fact I feel the opposite. The subjects of Chris’s photos appear to be happy they have been given a voice and a platform to say and do what they want without fear of repercussion. i would even bet that many of them would be angry at the person that stated they had been exploited. Chris’s photos changed my life, I am an addict only my drug is not heroine, I am not homeless, I did not have to prostitute to eat or get my drug. In fact I worked as a nurse throughout my addiction and I maintained. At the height of my addiction I could easily take 100 10mg Norco daily but yet I still didn’t put myself in the same category as the people in Chris’s photos and because of his ability to show them as a human being just like me with the same wants, needs, desires and problems I began to think differently thus the thoughts of suicide subsided and I slowly started getting better. I don’t pretend it was all lollipops and roses it was still hard but something I don’t think I could have done before stumbling across one of Chris’s photos. I also reached out to Chris once never expecting to hear back but he indeed took the time to respond and that is something I will always remember and appreciate.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Dawn – thank you. Just, thank you.

      I really appreciate that you’ve found this post and taken the time to share a part of your story.

      To understand what documentary photography should DO you dont need to be well versed in the ethics, you simply need to be moved by it. And it seems you were. Your story is a good reminder that images such as Arnade’s dont just tell stories, they can inform and influence the lives of others.

      We all have a ‘back story’ and the opportunity to tell that is important for us. And as you note, given the chance people will often place their trust in those they feel deserve it.

      I’m glad your life is heading into a good place, and I sincerely wish you well with your recovery and journey.

      Best wishes.

    • Jimmy says:

      That is a nice story Dawn and im glad Chris’s pictures had some positive impact somewhere. I’ll be honest and im one of the people critical of Chris’s work. However out of genuine curiosity i just wanted to ask what was it about Chris’s pictures that helped you recover?

      • Just in case she never comes back here, I am going to take the liberty of quoting from her comment:

        “because of his ability to show them as a human being just like me with the same wants, needs, desires and problems I began to think differently thus the thoughts of suicide subsided and I slowly started getting better.”


  6. The BDC responds to criticism of Chris Arnade’s inclusion in Altered Images exhibition:

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks. I appreciate the response.

      A point, which may seem small, but is important nonetheless, and not addressed in this response from BDC is that (at least my) criticism is NOT of Arnade’s inclusion, but the (surprising) exclusion of many other photographers equally deserving of consideration given that their work features people who for various reasons are unable to give consent, and/or who are represented in demeaning and pejorative ways, often only because of the colour of their skin and/or their citizenship of ‘foreign’ places, or their state of mental health: their ‘otherness’.

      If it is the case that I am considered to be one of Arnade’s “largely suburban and European supporters” then it suggests that Mr Kamber has missed the point of my post here on Duckrabbit completely, which is a shame. I am no supporter of Arnade, rather a critic of the somewhat narrow-minded consideration of an issue that is far more complex than the exhibition ‘Altered Images’ might suggest.

      Mr Kamber’s comment:

      “Mr.Arnade’s photographs exist in a continuum, one in which poor women of color have been represented in demeaning ways by White men for hundreds of years.”

      …could apply to Robin Hammond’s work on mental illness and mental handicap, or Gilden’s images of vulnerable people, and I could have listed several more image-makers whose work exists on that ‘edge’. Roger Ballen’s striking work, portraying apparently mentally unstable people, immediately springs to mind – his inclusion in Altered Images would have seemed logical, but for some reason he was excluded.

      And its the BDC’s failure to reflect this fact that is regrettable, the fact that such exploitation is far more mainstream, that images such as Ballen’s change hands for significant sums of money through galleries, are part of a wider currency of ‘art’ to be profited from, and explore the reality that there are many layers of ‘exploitation’ possible in the whole ‘photojournalistic’ process.

      THAT’S the huge ear-flapping elephant in the room of this debate that we are all ignoring – the reality that exploitation occurs at every level – from the photographer, through the gallery owner and book producer, the news media, to the critic and the consumer, and web service provider. ALL of us have a finger in this rotten pie we’ve created, and to single out one individual whilst ignoring “the continuum” of consumption we ALL represent, and the responsibility to subject we ALL owe, is at best naive and at worst downright perverse.

      In conclusion, as Mr Kamber notes about Arnade’s work:

      “Finally, and at its root, Mr. Arnade’s work is about power.”

      The BDC exists for precisely the same reason, to exert some control over the power of representation. That’s a fantastic mission, and one I wholeheartedly applaud and support. They do sterling work in their community and I respect that fact.

      But in curating Altered Images they used the wrong tool. They chose a spotlight. One only they controlled. That’s selectively wielding the very same power they criticize.

      They should have held up a mirror. Had a good look at it, then handed it to all of us to show us where the real ‘responsibility’ for all of this resides. The big old elephant is still in the room flapping its ears. Look in the mirror and you’ll see it.

      • Jimmy says:

        You mentioned Bruce, Gilden but theres been so much debate on him already. Every photograph in the exhibition, to me, represented a different kind of manipulation. They could have included literally thousands of other examples, including very famous photographers, but Chris’s picture summed up a certain type of manipulation in the social media age, and it’s particularly relevant since they were all taken in the bronx! If you look at the exhibition they had a great variety (it’s all online) – They had propoganda photographers, Big iconic photographers like Capa and Smith, tabloid photographers, Pulitzer prize winners, self censorship and even a local social media photographer… So it begs the question, if your criticism is ” NOT of Arnade’s inclusion” then why write all this, specifically about Arnade, why not mention the other photographers in here? The exhibition to me was good as it plays a bit of a devils advocate role.

        You obviously are concerned about the inclusion of Arnades work, yet at the same time you seem to admit that his work does in fact breach ethical guidelines so i dont see why you take such an exception to him being included.

        And i don’t understand how you say “they dropped the ball” on debate? If anything they did the exact opposite! They did an exhibition, it provoked HUGE discussion and debate, they have engaged with the people involved, they had a panel of respected industry leaders having a strong discussion on journalism with different points of view and they engaged in a dialog and have explained their point of view, in fact it’s been a huge success since even yourself has wrote a letter, so to suggest it’s just an echo chamber of some sort is unfair.

        At the end of the day context stands for a lot. Bruce Gilden could easily be in that exhibition but for entirely different reasons as Chris. But it’s the context and mode of working that set Chris apart in my opinion.

        I don’t think Chris is a bad or malicious person, however i do think he didn’t give his subjects and project enough thought and understanding. I mean the man openly says he doesn’t follow any journalistic ethics, yet he has sold his pictures to news outlets across the world and self published to millions, in some incredibly demeaning poses… It’s really not ethical to do that so willy nilly on a hard subject such as addiction, sexual abuse and mental illness.

        Also your argument of it being UNETHICAL to pay subjects just doesnt add up. I mean thats what the tabloid journalists say and do to get sensationalist storys. If you add the incentive of money, or even worse drugs, you are past documenting the story and instead paying people to act to the camera and in a topic such as mental health, prostitution and drug addiction im afraid that is bang out of line. Maybe in straight “street” photography you could argue this is somewhat ok with random subjects, i don’t know if i would agree but theres a debate there, but covering addiction it’s just a no brainer to me.

        And the issue of consent… and the comparison of Hammonds work and Chris’s… That really doesn’t add up. There projects are worlds apart, the context is far different, the way there subjects are represented is different, the level of depth is different there just really not in the same ball park at all.

        • John MacPherson says:

          Hi Jimmy, thanks for commenting.

          No I”m not writing anything “specifically about Arnade” as you seem to think. I”m no advocate for his work, I’m not familiar with a huge amount of it, but I AM interested in the politics of representation and the ethics of the whole business, in its widest sense.

          Where do I say it is unethical to pay people?

          In fact I dont.

          Here’s the bottom line: BDC mounted a big exhibition, they showcased it in the New York Times (which is where I saw it) and a raft of other places, all high-visibility stuff, globally. Bianca Farrow in the NYT in an article entitled ‘
          Posing Questions of Photographic Ethics’ is (presumably) quoted saying:

          “The exhibit, of which Bianca Farrow was a co-curator, is not intended
          to impose a viewpoint, but to prompt discussion about what is and is not
          allowable in photojournalism and documentary photography.”

          So I tried to enter into this discussion to engage with these “questions of ethics” and this is what the Bronx Doc Centre have said to me:

          from across the pond trying to dilute that rebuke by drawing
          equivalences to the work of others seems academic at best. This is a
          community taking a stand.” (Jonathan Giftos)


          you think we should do from you point of view from a distance is kind
          of a wacky position to take. Not being disrespectful but since you
          didn’t see the show or are privy to all the discussions you are kind of
          working at a disadvantage, no?” (Ricky Flores)

          So I take from those responses (and pretty surprising ones I must say) that ‘other’ perhaps ‘foreign’ voices are not welcome, and that some unknown “discussions” have taken place I’m not privvy to, so any attempt to engage with the basic premise of the BDC’s exhibition – one of an earnest discussion of ethics – is futile. And on that basis, I’ve given up trying. Basically I’ve been told my consideration of the situation is not valid and wont be considered. And bear in mind this is NOT a defence of Arnade we’re talking about which I’ve never offered, and nor will I, rather me being denied an opportunity to discuss the ethical questions prompted by the basic premise of the exhibition!.

          Seems I’m too foreign/distant/uninformed. Fair enough.

          But it seems might peculiar to mount a globally visible exhibition then exclude anyone from the discussion because they dont live in the Bronx.

          But, let me repeat this lest you have difficulty understanding it, I’m not an advocate for Arnade’s work, I’m not a fan, nor a supporter, nor I will try to justify his work; his approach to his work is his own to defend.

          All I’ve asked for in this duckrabbit post is for some consideration of the wider ethics surrounding image-making, selling etc. Is that too much to ask?

          If certain people want to shine the spotlight only on Arnade and want to give him a kicking, that’s their choice, but that’s NOT the basic premise of the BDC’s exhibition and to go any ways down that road as so many people seem to want to do is to miss a great opportunity to debate the issues posed by the exhibition, in its widest sense.

          We are ALL complicit in image manipulation and misrepresentation, you me, the BDC, Arnade, Kamber etc. And that was the basis upon which any comments I would have cared to offer would have been made.

          And I’m fed up chasing my tail in this so wont be entering into any more debate.

          • Jimmy says:

            I can understand you getting wound up at there response from BDC, however (and im not sure if this is how you contacted them) when i looked online Chris did post the BDC email addresses on his social media so i wouldn’t be surprised if they have been bombarded with support messages, which if anything is going to restrict genuine debate. So maybe they are not engaging well in debate in that regard, however this is all context left out of the article you published, how was I to know you’ve contacted them and got such a reply?

            The way the article read It doesn’t seem that all you’ve asked is for some wider consideration in to the ethics. By specifically highlighting Chris’s work, comparing it to Bruces and Hammonds work you are effectively implying that he has been singled out in some kind of unfair treatment in all of this, which i disagree with. It’s his own social media popularity where the spot light has come from and the public dialog between the two. I don’t think there was any intention to make Chris’s work stand out more, but thats what happens when engaging in a dialog through social media that has many followers.

            And i agree there is a wider debate to be had on pint sales and making money from photojournalism, I couldn’t go to the actual talk living far away so i don’t know if they touched on this or not, but yeah that is obviously an issue.

            Also note from the previous post: Im of the view that is unethical to pay someone in these circumstances to gain access, that was a typo.

          • John MacPherson says:

            Morning Jimmy.

            I’ve not “contacted” them. I’ve read their public domain stuff and press and publicity material, same as everyone else and made my judgments based on that. I rarely engage in behind-the-scenes discussion and if I do it will be posted for reference. The previous comments I alluded to about being excluded from the debate are in public on the BDC Facebook page if you want to look.

            Can I try to clarify my intention in writing the original post, as that may make it easier to understand.

            I’m not singling out Arnade. I actually posted Gilden’s photo at top. And by comparing it to Gilden’s and Hammond’s work I simply making a point that there is lots of other contentious work out there, creating reputations, making money for gallery owners, and book publishers, etc. But ALSO as is the case with Hammond’s work – raising important issues of human welfare in developing countries. My interest is in how we get to a point to be able to discuss the need for us to see those images and understand the issues that create such situations, but balanced against the rights of the individuals portrayed to have some say in the ways they are represented.

            I opened it with Gilden’s image, and closed with a use of that same image in a context I find rather disturbing: a greetings card. Is that the best we can do with images of vulnerable people?

            My point is that there is a morass of ‘exploitation’ of the subjects of all of these images. I could have used Michael Kamber’s image of a child soldier which he has for sale as a print instead of Gilden’s, but I chose not to do so as that would be (in my opinion, rightly or wrongly) taking this debate to a narrower level that it didn’t need to go to. And Gilden’s fitted the ‘aesthetic’ better being similar to Arnade’s image.

            It would have been really good if Kamber had, of his own volition, included his own image of that child soldier in the exhibit, and used it demonstrate that we are ALL part of this conundrum of use/misuse/profit that goes on around photojournalism. And around that open portrayal of his own work (and his is work I greatly respect) fostered a stirring debate about the complications of working in photojournalism, the ‘elasticity’ of the ethical framework photojournalists must work within, and the fact that there are no ‘rules’ as such, simply guidelines and moral compasses that one must follow or ignore. By NOT doing that he has created a them/us situation where Arnade is the former and they are the latter. And that’s what I think is a real shame.

            By including Arnade, because he works in the Bronx, and the BDC is located there, they got a predictable response (in my opinion) and one that they are benefiting from. (And of course by duckrabbit including reference to this whole situation you can argue, if you care t)o, we too get page hits. That’s the way it works. NONE of us are exempt from it.)

            But that’s NOT whats being held up for examination here, the focus is too much one person and by doing so the ‘debate’ that BDC claim to want to foster is ignoring the wider system that sees (financial) benefit for many players. For example, the NYT lens blog, their page views and ads generate revenue for them by featuring this BDC/Altered mages’ show. The system ensures money is made, exploitation happens.

            But (rhetorical question) is not BDC’s use of Arnade’s images (which
            they’ve condemned) simply more of the same exploitative uses of imagery
            and vulnerable people?
            Some would argue yes, others no. I used one of Arnade’s pictures, and Gilden’s too, and Hammond’s – that’s me being a huge part of this whole sticky festering mess.

            But at least I’m aware of that, and I dont do it without thinking about it and considering the implication of doing so.

            I have no answers to any of this, only questions, questions and more questions. Out of those should come debate, which is healthy. Anyway, thanks for continuing the debate, and for engaging reasonably with Chris Arnade here on the duck. It is appreciated.

            Dialogue doesn’t have to be painful. Have a good weekend.

          • Jimmy says:

            Hi John, i think i understand your point of view a bit clearer now. Perhaps part of the reason your post came off as a defence of Chris’s work is because I found it by being linked from Chris’s facebook page, and i must have read it with a certain tone in mind.

            I can understand your issue with the BDC kind of missing the trees for the forest so to speak as much of the exhibition is focused, rather on the technicalities of image manipulation as opposed to the ethics around manipulation of subjects and making money and it is a debate worth having. (however they do have very limited space and resources but it certainly could have been wider than it was) I don’t however think this whole debate with Chris was intended to blow up as it did, but for better or for worse it has done.

            While im still inclined to believe that Chris’s work fits pretty well in the exhibition and i can sympathise with them including him because it is there community, I do agree that if Kamber had put in one of his own pictures in the there it would be saying a lot of uncomfortable truths that many photographers just don’t want to get into. We obviously are all guilty of manipulation to an extent, it is impossible not to be and a healthy discussion on how we grow and learn from it and where to draw the line is not a bad thing.

            I’m quite disappointed to hear them announcing on social media that us across the atlantic should not engage in debate and im pretty vexed with that kind of approach myself. It seems a little hypocritical considering much of the debate they would have been having would have been about countries accross the globe, so does that mean they are not allowed to talk about Haiti?

            But all this being said i do at the same time think the exhibition did raise some interesting points and had a lot of healthy discussion, all be it not as wide as it should/could have been. I guess they let personal feelings get in the way.

        • Chris_Arnade says:

          Ok Jimmy, I will bite.

          What are the ethics you are upset with?

          I help my subjects, sometimes with money? I am perfectly happy with that, to not pay them, and then sale my work as most journalist do, is to me unethical.

          Demeaning poses? Too who? You. Not to those in the pics. They have their own views on demeaning, and for you to imply your standards to them is, well, demeaning. They all request it, I mostly don’t, but 4 out of 1,000 pics have them nude. Because to NOT do it would be shading the truth.

          Power difference? Well every photo you take comes with a power difference. I can shoot those with more agency than me, or less. I have zero interest in telling the stories of those with more agency than me. They have plenty of outlets already. So I try and tell the stories of those without. I know the difference between me and my subject, and I do my hardest to respect it. Sometimes I fail. But the thing is, to NOT SHOW THEM NUDE WOULD BE USING MY POWER OVER THEM, USING MY MORALS TO TELL THEM WHAT TO DO. So, I respect how they want to pose.

          You and BDC seem hung up on nudity; unable to accept and deal with it not being demeaning to them. Why it isn’t demeaning to them is the real question of my series, and what I have written about a lot, and what you and BDC and many don’t want to hear. Ask that question. Why don’t they mind being nude? It ain’t the money or the drugs


          Context matter. All the pics I have taken, and placed on line, come with stories or accompanying essays. BD stripped the words away, and posted them without context. That changes everything, and that is unfair to the subjects. I would never do that to someone. BDC did and would.

          It is a 4 year project; immerse yourself in it, if you really want to judge it. Some of it is ugly, it ain’t pics of sunsets on the beach, because their lives aren’t sunsets on the beaches.

          Can be reached at chris@arnade.com

          • Jimmy says:

            Hi Chris, the biggest ethical issue i have is not the the nudity but with your mode of working.

            I understand how you may become friends with your subjects and as projects develop things can get murky. But when embarking on a documentary project i feel it is important to bare in mind you are not only representing individuals, but a group of a people, a geographical region, a social issue and so on to a very wide audience.

            With that in mind, when you are adding the incentive of money and drugs into the scene, it then creates a situation where the people you are documenting may be inclined to act or behave a certain way, as by acting that way they may believe it will get them more drugs and money, and this often falls into stereotypes.

            In addition to this and perhaps more importantly when covering such hard news issues involving vulnerable people, It is very important that the exchange of information is completely willing and free, once you have introduce the incentive of money and drugs into the situation, there is no way even yourself can guarantee that the exchange is willing, as the subject may only let you take photographs for potential money/ drugs, yet keep this secrete from you, thus the exchange of information is not entirely willing.

            Also when working on such hard news issues such as drug addiction, it is vital the subject understands the implications of their photos being published. Now i don’t actually know if you did this or not, but did you sit down and talk with your subjects about the implications of them being published world wide, how it may affect them in years to come, how it may affect their families? That would be the ethical thing to do when working on a 4 year long project before publishing it, even on flickr and is a requirement of working journalists.

            In general this is all practice that will cost most working journalists there jobs and i think with good reason as it helps to stop journalists creating the news in order to make it sensational stories, exploiting vulnerable people and guarantees the only people who take part are aware of what is happening, the only exception to that rule is with some tabloids, which shamefully exploit and demean people on a regular basis.

            I understand you say this is a personal project, however as best your intentions were (and i don’t think you’re a bad malicious guy) I just don’t understand why you didn’t draw that line, in which case no one can question the validity and integrity of your work. It may have started out a personal project, but since then you have published your pictures on flickr and in international press.

            It is with all this in mind that the nudity now bothers me. I am not a prude, however when viewing the images, now in the back of my mind i’m thinking, this image may have been taken because the photographer paid them with drugs and they acted such a way because they knew you was after a “striking” image. Your mode of working raises these feelings and draws into doubt it’s integrity as a documentary photograph. It makes me question weather drugs and money were used to sensationalise the issue you are covering to create more striking images.

            i get your point of view, that this is the real life and people are as they are in your pictures, however i don’t feel you had to document them in the way you did and in doing so it brings a number of questions as to weather your work is actually documenting anything at all, and not in fact imparting one mans (the photographers) view on what drug addiction in the Bronx should look like. I hope that clarifies my view and id be happy to talk more about it.

          • Chris_Arnade says:

            Thanks; Quick answers before commenting more

            Yes, not only do we talk about posting pics, but I go back and show them what was posted so they can see. I loathe the assumption that they can’t understand consequences. Please. These are smart folks.

            I am not a journalist. I have an agenda. That has been stated until I am blue in face. I am not objective. I don’t want to be objective, I don’t believe one can be objective. If my works feels journalisticy, well, so be it. I have made it clear I pay, that I insert myself. I am not attempting to deceive. I happen not to agree, ethically, with the stated rules that constrain journalist.

            Also, a NYT reporter, by posting pics to a global platform, is giving his/her subject compensation, not money, but fame and hopes of money

            Two questions. I emphasize the lack of context. My work requires the words. I have made a mistake in not emphasizing that more. Do you understand why it frustrates me to have my pictures ripped out of context?

            Second question.
            Look at this pic by the curator of the show, M Kamber. Do you have problems of consent/power/compensation with it (meaning he is selling a photo and the girl is getting nothing)?

          • Jimmy says:

            I will take your word for it that you talked about the implications of publishing the pictures internationally. You have to understand that this is not me assuming your subjects don’t understand consequences, but I was asking if you took the the responsibility to explain fully and when they are in a stable mind state. i have worked in very similar situations myself where people who are smart, may not have known much about the internet and its reach, it can sometimes be a generation thing alone and i think you would agree special consideration has to be taken with victims of abuse.

            I am curious, if you do not view yourself as a journalist, do you therefore not view your work as documentary photography, in which case what do you view it as? And what do you find unethical about the ethical guide lines set up by bodies such as the NUJ?

            To answer your question i can relate to your problems of having images re appropriated as i have often had my own images stolen and re contextualised by mainstream press, and put into racists and prejudice context. However i think the context Kamber put your pictures in the exhibition was only to provoke debate, It says online that it includes your original caption?

            And im sorry but i dont think the group allows links to be posted but i had a look at Kambers page and saw a girl with a gun in a street? I can agree there is a debate to be had there certainly! The ethics of selling such prints is questionable i agree.

          • Chris_Arnade says:

            I err on side of not posting, when I am unsure they understand. One picture I waited 3 years, and many many conversations. Others I don’t post. I am not going to say it doesn’t get complicated, or perhaps I don’t get it wrong now and then. Or that attitudes don’t change over time, but when they do I weigh, is it a change that is “normal” or a change that comes from their unique situation.

            I am an artist working in the journalistic style? I am documenting my relationship to a family of street addicts, putting the emphasis on them, rather than me, but sometimes inserting myself and explaining why. (for instance, my long piece on driving a women across the country to be with her family: Google “Bronx Beauty” to read.)

            Part of that means i write about what it is like to be close to addicts, and the pressures they put on you.

            I fully respect the code for most short term projects; such as business work, or brief interviews.

            For a four year immersion project like this, with such a gulf of experience and agency between me and my subjects, I don’t think a photographer can ever be removed. In those situations the code ends up giving a false sense of objectivity. I also think, not helping, is unethical, and ends up warping the experience. The photographer doesn’t become the fly on the wall, but the alien in the room.

            Personally I could never do this project and not become close to those I am working with. I don’t understand how someone can do a long project, then leave without forming a bond, or a friendship. It is why I won’t do projects about people I do not like.

            And yes, I like very much those I work with. So in that sense, I am not a journalist, but an advocate.

          • Jimmy says:

            Hi Chris i think this is where our disagreement comes to a head. By covering hard topics, working in the journalist style, presenting your work as a factual representation and self publishing, by definition, that makes you a type of citizen journalist.

            I understand how it is hard when conducting a long term project to maintain some kind of boundary. This is an ethical issue photojournalists and documentary photographers have faced since the beginning of photography.

            An interesting one to look at is Jessica Dimmocks project the 9th floor. The project is also on drug addiction, was taken in a New York apartment building and took place over a long period of time (i think nearly 2 years), the photographer wasent a published or professional journalist at the time of the project (she was entirely unknown) and the project even has very intimate pictures of a couple having sex and nudity. There are many similarities with your work.

            Jessica also built up a strong relationship with here subjects and viewed them as friends, facing many of the same ethical issues you did. However throughout her project she did draw a line along the ethical guidelines and would not pay or provide drugs to her subjects for fear of exploitation. The result is a project that more than anything, documents human relationships and has a distinct level of intimacy to it.

            I do think, while it may be harder, it is certainly still possible to conduct these projects while adhering to ethical guidelines and without becoming an alien in the room. The guidelines are there to protect the integrity of the work, the people in the pictures and guarantee what we are seeing is an accurate depiction not a sensationalised coverage. And i think by not adhering to these guidelines you have ended up with a more sensationalised coverage which lack much of the intimacy and wider context needed to fully document such a topic. This then leads people to question if you exploited your subjects as your mode of working and pictures produced leaves it unclear.

            So in answer to the points you’ve raised, i do not believe you deserve some kind of exception to these rules because you are conducting a long term project, are not a traditional paid journalist or publish mainly on the internet. I can understand how you may have made this mistake, since you are not trained in journalism or social work and self publish and do not believe it was malicous, however it is still an unacceptable breach in my opinion.

          • Chris_Arnade says:

            I have looked at Jessica’s project. I disagree entirely on the level of intimacy. I think my work suffers from many things, but not from a lack of intimacy.

            I have spent nights at their families homes, met their children (i don’t publish that). She is missing the intimacy, she is seeing how they want to present themselves only to the camera.

            That is a big difference. She was a visitor.

            I did what she admits too at first; gave them clothes. They sold them for 1/2 the price. I gave them food. They sold them for 1/2 the price. So I gave them money, when they were in a tight spot. I was a banker after all, I aint going to let the value be cut in half in ten minutes.

            Again. Journalist. Yes in style, but one big difference. I don’t claim with this project, and never have, of not helping. I am not asking for an exception to the rules, I am telling you upfront I am not following that rule. That is not asking.

            PS: I have received private communications from folks claiming that a few famous works of “journalism” payments were made. I have received enough of them to think it is far more common than acknowledged, and certainly more common than admitted.

          • Jimmy says:

            Hi Chris, i think this is where we now are approaching a point of having to agree to disagree. Obviously you do take your work very personally. I don’t think thats a bad thing, i just have a belief that you can still achieve that level of closeness, while still following ethical guidelines, and for me, since you don’t, i have too much doubt in your work to view it as an accurate depiction of a complex social issue.

            When talking about intimacy that is obviously a matter of opinion and theres no way to prove one way or the other that was just my personal point of view on your work.

            I would argue you are also a visitor to the South Bronx, you may have stayed the night from time to time, however admitably you are not a part of that community, you are not a drug user or prostitute living in hunts point, you are still an outsider documenting, just as Jessica was.

            I know you don’t claim to follow the rules and are transparent about that. This is why i asked you earlier do you think your work is documentary photography. As by openly not following these rules, doubt is then casted into the integrity of the work thus robbing it of it’s documentary quality, it makes me question, are these partially fabricated and sensationalised images as you have admitably presented them in a factual context.

            Im in no position to talk about stereotypes in the US or the South Bronx, as i live across the world and do not know enough about the region to know what the area is like, but when the integrity of an image comes into question, issues of stereotypes and fair representation arise.

            Obviously you disagree with yourself having to follow these rules, and in a sense your right there is no laws and you are not restricted by employment, however for me this is why i view your images with suspicion and primarily as one mans narrow view of what the addiction in the bronx should look like and not an accurate examination of what it is actually like. (maybe for right or wrong as i said i don’t know the Bronx)

          • Chris_Arnade says:

            Thanks for the discussion. Thoughtful. I can be reached at chris@arnade.com for further questions/points, but I am kind of done with online discussions on this. I have reached out many many times to BDC over 4 years to have dialogue, and they refuse. My offer still stands. If they ever take me up on it, well then I will restart this discussion.

            Thanks again.


  7. Grassman says:

    Mr. Kamber is dead wrong about the photos and the motivation behind Arnade’s desire to photograph what he does. I think that Mr. Kamber might be jealous of Arnade’s success, and more than uncomfortable with the subject matter because it makes his squirm with discomfort.

    In his response to Arnade, Kamber seems extremely high minded, almost smug, as if he is the guardian of all that should be exhibited. If he thinks that Arnade’s photos are about power, his deisre to include Arnade’s photos in the exhibit (along with his language in his initial letter to Arnade, which I think was condescending garbage and a back handed way of embarrassing Arnade), is all about power as well. All curators have a certain level of power, and Kamber is not afraid to wield his. I am fairly left leaning in my political beliefs, but this attempt to justify embarrassing Arnade is nothing more than Kamber’s desire to shove his form of political correctness down others’ throats. He will show the photos, and while he has a glass of scotch or malbec or Pelligrino (maybe even Bronx tap water) in his hands, he will point out Arnade’s “disgusting” photos to like minded thinking people, and they will all congratulate themselves on putting Arnade in his place, all while missing the entire issue.

    Looking at this another way, Kamber could be just drumming up support for what otherwise would have been a boring, moribund exhibit. Me thinks that the phrase “bad publicity is better than no publicity at all” applies here. Kamber created buzz around the exhibit, and it will probably be better attended than ever before.

    The world is an ugly place. Arnade photographs the seedy side of life; it is news. It is tragic that people live like those in the photos do, but it is a part of life that many of us do not see. Arnade’s photos are far less objectional than the shots of enemy combatants being blown to bits 7,000 miles away. Arnade’s photos hurt more because they were taken in Kamber’s metaphorical backyard not in some far away place that has no bearing on Kamber’s center.

    Nachtwey made his name as a war photographer. I don’t know if he donated any of the proceeds to the families of those whom he photographed being shot at, killed, or hacked at. And it does not matter. Does it matter that the body of a famous war photographer was shown on the front page of a newspaper? Nope, even though his friends thought it was wrong.

    Is paying someone $5.00, $10.00, or $50.00, to take their photo wielding power? Not at all. If Mr. Kamber wants to see power, all he has to do is look at the last few years of Lynsey Addario’s career. She was held hostage in Libya but the Turkish government interceded on her and the other’s behalves, and they were released. In another incident, she indicated that the Israeli’s mistreated her while she was pregnant. The NYT, still a powerful newspaper, wrote a letter of protest to the Israeli govt. about the way she was treated. They subsequently apologized. The ability to call on people in high places, and the ability to have countries or an internationally known employer intercede on one’s behalf, that is real power.

    When Arnade claimed that he needs to sell his place in Brooklyn Heights to continue photographing the denizens of the Bronx, he is not claiming “woe is me”, rather, I believe it is a statement of dedication to his craft; he is willing to forgo creature comforts and settle for less. He fights for the poor and mentally ill the way he thinks is best, with his camera, even though he may not be as noble as Eugene Richards was. Many show their dedication to causes by simply throwing money at the problem, Arnade does not. He is there, telling the stories of the downtrodden and invisible to the point that it makes others uncomfortable. I would much rather give Arnade money to continue his quest to understand the human condition, than Kamber $5.00 as admission fee to wield power in his tiny kingdom.

    I don’t know either Arnade or Kamber, and I could not pick either of them out of the proverbial line up, so my going to bat for Arnade is not based on any sort of friendship or personal animus to Kamber.

    • Jimmy says:

      come on now, why would Kamber be jealous? How childish and egotistical do you have to be to believe that! Some people genuinely don’t like Chris’s work, it’s a fact not a conspiracy, i live half way across the world and don’t like his work. There are genuine concerns about his mode of working and the ethics around it, it’s weird how so many of his followers get so touchy at bringing it up! And shoving his own form of political correctness down someones throat? The man is talking about journalistic ethics that have been establish a LONG TIME, not his own that he pulled out thin air. These are ethics that Chris has openly exempted himself from because he said “hes not a journalist”, yet his pictures are published in traditional and social media to millions – it’s remarkable how so many people think that this shouldn’t even be open to debate and discussion, which is ALL this exhibition was about!!!

      • duckrabbit says:

        Hi Jimmy,

        Good to meet you on here as well!

        Just to say the application of ‘journalistic ethics’ by Kamber is really poor.

        Firstly Arnade doesn’t claim to be a journalist and should not be examined in that light. Of course that doesn’t mean he’s exempt from examination of his working practises and pictures. Not at all, it just means the journalism part is a distraction.

        Secondly though its just not true that these ethics have been established for a long time. Journalists don’t pay for stories in the USA but elsewhere they do. For example during my time at the BBC we would very often pay our guests. In fact many people would consider it wrong to take peoples time and not compensate them in some way.

        The question still remains does Arnade take advantage? Its a good question. A human one that doesn’t in any way need framing by ‘journalistic ethics’. All work should be subject to this question.

        Thanks for your comment.

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