May 30, 2020, on the north end of the Wabash Bridge, downtown Chicago . . . . On one side of me was a wall of riot-gear clad police officers, wearing sky blue helmets with their plastic face visors down, clutching wooden batons, their knuckles whiter than snow. On the other side just half a meter apart was a wall of demonstrators, shouting through their cloth face masks, venting their anger and frustration that it was the same old thing happening once again; a white cop killing a black man, this time, it was George Floyd in Minneapolis five days prior. And in that half-meter buffer between the two fronts–that “no mans land” of civil strife–crouched down and huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with two other young photojournalists was myself and my cameras, snapping away while trying to calm my breathing. I am not quite sure how I found myself in that exact spot in the first place, but about twenty minutes into it, after some instigators attempted to steer the protest into a more violent direction and began hurling water bottles and firecrackers into the police line, and scuffles closer to the Trump Tower led to police and protestors alike being carried off on stretchers to ambulances parked behind the horse-mounted police behind the main line, it dawned on me that the three of us were in the best and worse spot to be. I figure I had enough photos for that scene and told the other two that we probably should get out and fall back behind the protestors. They both nodded as I began slipping between the protestors back a few rows. I still do not know what became of those two. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, the police started pushing forward. I am certain that there was a lot of shouting and yelling, but all I could hear really was the sound of the shutter on my camera and film advance . . . and my inner monologue screaming, “What the fuck am I doing out here!?!? What is wrong with me!?!?”
I spent the next several hours running with stampeding protestors as the police charged, photographing make-shift barricades from trash dumpsters, a police cruiser flipped on its side, another on fire, protestors getting arrested, all before running out of film and realising that I should head home to safety. Well, it was more so my friends messaging me and screaming at me to go home, knowing too well just how much I like to get into trouble.
I have hesitated to show the photos from that day in full size on social media, partly out of fear that those photos would be used for odious purposes, such as the police or some government agency or political group using them to identify protestors to prosecute or persecute and harm them. At the same time, I refuse to censor my photographs by blurring or putting black blocks over faces, adhering to a code of ethics that I shall discuss at the end of this writing. So it is certainly a quandary. Ultimately, some of these photos will be presented in print as part of my First Amendment book project, but that will not be completed for quite some time. However, another 80 Proof Photos artist and I have discussed the possibly of a virtual live webinar-like presentation and discussion of these photos to a registered audience, as to mitigate against any harm towards the subject by limited showing. That is a work in progress however. In the meantime, I would like to use this opportunity to declare two things.
First, as you may have noticed, 80 Proof Photos has been on an unofficial hiatus for quite some time. Part of that is due dealing with personal ramifications directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As for myself, I have been out in the field more (with mask on and socially distancing as much as possibly can), covering some of the protests following May 30. As a result, however, I have been doing a lot for shooting and very little editing. It is too bad we do not have it in the budget to hire a staff editor and media directly. Then again, being the creative control freak that I am, I prefer to do my own editing and printing. That being said, it is time to end that hiatus. 80 Proof Photos is back with a new season; hopefully, we will not have to resort to jumping the shark–unless it involves photographing someone literally jumping over a shark.
Second, I want to make clear where we stand in regards to this social and human issue. I write not only for myself but on behalf of all member artists of 80 Proof Photos, who are of like mind, that we stand for truth and integrity, and we stand for the rights of human beings. As such, we hereby declare that only once black lives matter can all lives begin to matter. Until then, the whine of “all lives matter” serves at the least as an illusion to avoid confronting uncomfortable realities without ourselves, and at worst outright hatred and evil. I cannot understand how one can say that “black lives matter” is racist and hateful. I have been out there surrounded by black people and allies at these rallies and marches; I have heard their pain, their frustration, their fatigue of their lives being treated as subordinate and disposable. The truth that I have witnessed and documented myself is that the reason why people are fighting for the right for black lives to matter is that as much as we humans hope to finally reach a point in our society that racism no longer exists, it unfortunately does all too well.
At the same time, however, it is important to temper and balance that passion and fight for human rights as to ensure the truth, that the truth does not get distorted, and in maintaining that integrity to the truth, ensure credibility. It irked me whenever I heard protesters shout, “All cops are bastards!” It is dangerous to deal in such absolutism, and saying such is no better than saying, “All lives matter.” As one who plays the photojournalism game more often than not, however, it is paramount that I and anyone else documenting and reporting on any events and occurrences to be as impartial as possible, with the only master to serve being the truth. Photojournalists lend their eyes so that others can see, so we have a great and grave responsibility to ensure that our eyes are truthful. While neither I nor any 80 Proof Photos members are part of the National Press Photographers Association at the time of this writing, I would like to recite their code of ethics and portions of its preamble, as I myself strive at adhere to it as faithfully as possible:
[ . . . ]
Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. Our primary role is to report visually on the significant events and varied viewpoints in our common world. Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand. As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images.
Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.
[ . . . ]
CODE OF ETHICS
Visual journalists and those who manage visual news productions are accountable for upholding the following standards in their daily work:
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
- Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
- Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
- Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
- Do not engage in harassing behavior of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behavior in all professional interactions.
Ideally, visual journalists should:
- Strive to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public. Defend the rights of access for all journalists.
- Think proactively, as a student of psychology, sociology, politics and art to develop a unique vision and presentation. Work with a voracious appetite for current events and contemporary visual media.
- Strive for total and unrestricted access to subjects, recommend alternatives to shallow or rushed opportunities, seek a diversity of viewpoints, and work to show unpopular or unnoticed points of view.
- Avoid political, civic and business involvements or other employment that compromise or give the appearance of compromising one’s own journalistic independence.
- Strive to be unobtrusive and humble in dealing with subjects.
- Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.
- Strive by example and influence to maintain the spirit and high standards expressed in this code. When confronted with situations in which the proper action is not clear, seek the counsel of those who exhibit the highest standards of the profession. Visual journalists should continuously study their craft and the ethics that guide it.
© Khoa Dao, K. Dao Photography, 80 Proof Photos