Visually we’ve got a long way to go

By Conor Ashleigh

When it comes to visual communication there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. In this blog I will explore how in contemporary photojournalism and documentary filmmaking there is still a significant amount of imagery that reinforces traditional power relationships and exotifies those from the majority world.

Edward Martinez is a highly respected documentary filmmaker and in a recent article he unpacked a lot of hard truths too regularly avoided by photographers and filmmakers. “It is this Western tendency to ethnographize the special, the exotic, the different, and to maintain such structures of separation and distance that have fueled a cultural colonialism for centuries”. Martinez asserts that the “history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.).” Martinez makes a crucial point that more often than not documentary filmmaking reinforces a flow of power and control over the stories from those without it to those with it.

Robert Godden (2017) notes how “in recent years, the controversy that has preoccupied photojournalism and documentary photography is the manipulation and staging of images, and the success or failure of various attempts to address these issues.” Simultaneously a number of photographers have been exposed for their deeply unethical and, at times, exploitative practices when working with children. Godden (2017) asks “surely respecting the rights of a child forced into prostitution should trump whether an object was removed from a photo through toning?”

In recent years there have been a number of deeply unethical photographers uncovered for potentially criminal practices. While I don’t seek to overlook these issues I do want to explore the issue of publishing photos without consent, something that is more of an everyday example of how photographers demonstrate the cultural colonization Edward Martinez wrote about.

Below is a screenshot from Simon Sharp’s blog Verisimilitude that features a photo of Turkish photojournalist Bülent Kiliç. Bülent Kiliç is a seasoned photographer, he has won a raft of awards including a World Press Photo for his news photos of refugees crossing from Syria into Turkey and is the photographer manager for Agence France-Presse in Turkey.


Kiliç’s photo below ran in the Financial Times with the caption “A Syrian Kurdish woman and her baby on Thursday in the Rojava refugee camp.” Some people may view the photo and read the accompanying caption and feel that Kiliç’s is just doing his job. While I respect the role of journalists and the need for freedom of press, I find the decisions to firstly take this photo, then for it to be filed on to the AFP photo server and then finally chosen by a Financial Times photo editor for publication deeply disturbing. Simon Sharp captures my initial feeling “this is an encounter in which a woman is in the simplest possible way indicating with what power she has left the message ‘please do not photograph me’.”

A quick Google search for ‘Syrian refugees’ shows countless images that present ethical questions about consent and also about the deeper power dynamics of representation. I refer to Bülent Kiliç’s work not because it’s unique in this sense but more to represent the deeper issue of cultural colonialism that is yet to be seriously addressed within mainstream visual journalism industries.

This blog isn’t proposing an answer for what is needed to address these deeply embedded issues within mainstream visual journalism. There is no silver bullet nor a single solution but a considered cultural and practical shift may be a good start. As a visual storyteller, this writing has been a valuable step in my own self-reflection. I will close with a question from Edward Martinez that initially prompted me to write a blog post on this topic. “How did I, a filmmaker of color who is obsessed with context, representation and disrupting the status quo, fall into the same trap I constantly rail against?”

Conor Ashleigh

Conor is a committed visual storyteller that produces compelling and intimate stories using photography and film. Conor tells stories that are primarily focused on exploring the human experience within a wide range of social, cultural and environmental contexts. Conor works for a range of international organisations in both the development and humanitarian spaces. Conor’s practice is deeply informed by his background in community development and extensive experience working with a range of communities and cultures across the globe. He is regularly engaged on assignments creating meaningful video stories and photographic essays as well as facilitating participatory visual communication and storytelling workshops for communities and project staff.


  1. An interesting read. S

  2. Great reflection on this urging question of ethical representation! It might be a sense of heroic narcissism that can overcome you in journalism with the focus on uncovering injustice. You easily forget you are portraying individuals when focusing only on the big context. The people become a case that – for the sake of visualization and raising awareness – are forced to sacrifice their individual needs.
    Even though a generalized solution to this is probably too much to ask for, but I am still curious to know how you, as a visual storyteller, approach this issue. The discussed picture of an individual of course raises the question of why didn’t he just ask for her consent. But what about moments where that is not necessarily an option? Pictures of big crowds, sudden accidents, barriers between you and the photographed etc. Should they not be photographed? Whats the ethical take on those moments of journalism?

    • Great point Lili and for me you nailed it when you personified the way that for many the individual gets lost in the bigger context. I hear you.
      There is no single answer or a generalised solution and in regards to how one navigates consent, its not as simple as ask and someone says yes. That consent can be revoked at any time just as it can be given.
      In regards to the ethics of asking for consent in peak moments such as emergencies, protests etc, most people taking images in these moments are there for a news or documentary sake. In these instances most people’s approach is shoot first and if needed ask later. I am sure that if it was reversed we would see very different imagery coming out of such instances. Would love to talk more one day about my personal approach too.

      • Would love to hear more one day! Thanks for the answer, it’s very true what you are saying about navigating consent. It’s a tricky business. Does the ‘community’ of visual storytellers have any current ‘heroes of representation’ you could recommend? 🙂 Someone with an ethically highly sensitive approach, or would that automatically boil down to only oneself can represent oneself? I must say, the jourey into comdev feels a bit like a spiral, especially with focus on representation.

        • *and by the journey I don’t mean your blog 🙂 great work here! Just ComDev as a field always feels a little like you are more and more closing in on the issues and solutions but never getting there 100%. It’s fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

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