Who’s in a photo?

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“Our job … is to point a lens at it, not to censor it—in the hopes that readers learn, react, and change because the photo made an impact on them.” A new ScienceVisuals blog explores the ethics of publishing sensitive photos of people.

photo team discussed the ethics of publishing such sensitive photos: one of newborn infants crowded into a single bassinet, and another of a child with typhoid fever in a crib.

From a distance, Meredith Wadman captured this photo of a child with typhoid fever with minimal safety precautions in King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban, South Africa.In 1986, as a young medical student in Durban, South Africa, Wadman experienced a transformative moment in her career.

The segregated hospital where she worked was not given the support it needed from the government to properly care for patients, even those with treatable diseases. She felt compelled to tell people what was happening. So, she used a pocket-size Minox camera to capture pictures of the hospital conditions.

Wadman photographed the babies in such a way that their faces were not clearly recognizable, nor was the child in the crib, who was photographed at a distance. There’s a low risk these adult individuals could be identified today. Therefore, our team determined their well-being was not at risk.E. PETERSEN/Historically, the field of science has a damaging pattern of associating people of color with disease and poor health.

The ethical quandary is to determine whether the public needs to know the information in a picture. A photo editor weighs the bad with the good. The picture might be troubling or frightful. Our job, as visual journalists, is to point a lens at it, not to censor it—in the hopes that readers learn, react, and change because the photo made an impact on them.


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ScienceVisuals As long as it's not too graphic, censoring is just a way to withold information from the public. People don't need to be shielded by 'gruesome imagery', but from misinformation and information manipulation. For me, any picture is a go if it helps the data explanation.

ScienceVisuals Yes.

ScienceVisuals Real impactful photos are an effective means of heightening the limbic system of a target viewer A heightened limbic system also dampens the cerebral cortex, reducing critical thinking I bet real impactful photos can make advertisements more effective

ScienceVisuals Is that what you got out of that? (Good for you!)

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