As demonstrations against anti-Black violence and systemic racism surge across the nation, Noah Morrison, a former student, TA, and employee at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, grew concerned by pictures shared by some ICP students on social media that failed to conceal protesters’ faces. When he reached out to them expressing the dangers of exposing activists’ identities, some agreed to take down the images, but others did not — and Morrison believed formal directives should come from the institution.
“I am a Black, queer photographer who has been a member of the ICP community since I was 16 years old,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Over the last week, I have attempted to explain to students and faculty in the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism Program that they have, at minimum, an ethical responsibility to disguise protesters’ identities when photographing them.”
Efforts to engage ICP on issuing guidelines for protest photography, however, have proved fruitless, said Morrison. Dozens of e-mails sent by him and his colleagues to Karen Marshall, chair of Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism at ICP, went unanswered. Internal communications circulated by ICP Director Mark Lubell struck some as vague and unspecific, stating the institution’s interest in “examining emerging issues in photojournalism” but failing to take immediate action.
“Even as we penned and relayed an open letter with our demands supported by almost 150 community members, there was and is no attempt to engage with us on the terms laid out,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “There have only been meaningless PR-tinted public and private statements intended to erase necessity for any accountability owed or institutional reckoning.”
Morrison outlined five demands to ICP: that it mandate students to remove all online protest photos showing distinguishing features and discipline those who don’t; publish an institutional ethical framework for photojournalism; make Critical Race Studies a learning requirement; and commit to having Black people make up at least 30% of its student body, faculty, and staff within a two-year timeframe.
On June 9, the ICP published a statement on its website expressing solidarity with Black communities. The center pledged to provide equity training; launch a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative; and discuss issues such as protection of protestor safety, privacy, consent, and freedom of expression in a new series of online conversations about documenting protest.
But Morrison and other members of ICP Center Blackness Now, a recently-formed, Black-led effort to hold the institution accountable, view these measures as superficial.
“They are choosing to capitalize on this moment by having public talks about the issues brought forth without including us in any way,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “This is anti-Black.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, ICP said that it acknowledges the concerns around the ethics of photographing protesters, but it has not required students to “censor their work,” citing its commitment to “free expression and documentary practice.”
“Through our community, we have heard how the photographing of protests has raised concerns regarding ethics and documentation — specifically the issue of whether it is ethical to show identifying features of individuals publicly engaging in protest,” an ICP spokesperson said. “We provide an open and safe educational space for important dialogue around the ever-evolving issues in photography, and provide our students with the best tools to approach their work with integrity.”
The ICP also told Hyperallergic that it does not currently have information available on the percentage of faculty and student body that is Black. “Our DEI initiative will include plans to ethically and with consent collect self-identifying demographic information from our student, faculty, and staff populations,” the spokesperson said.
Fears that activists will be identified and targeted from protest photographs rapidly circulating on social media are rooted in real incidents of visual policing. In Seattle, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police issued a statement requesting civilian photographs and footage to locate suspects of looting and vandalism.
“This is just one example of many where the state surveillance apparatus is being used in service of the deeply anti-Black prison-industrial complex,” said Morrison. “The capacities of digital photography are being exploited and weaponized against Black people across the country.”
Earlier this month, Hyperallergic reported on a new iOS software tool that allows users to automatically blur faces in photos and erase their metadata. The images can then be shared without revealing information as to where and when they were taken or the identity of activists, details that can unintentionally aid the police or the FBI in tracking and targeting them.
In a recent essay, William C. Anderson explores the ways in which photojournalists justify violent or incriminating images on the basis of so-called “journalistic objectivity,” an argument that puts lives in danger. “Photojournalists and others in the media that simply want to exploit the reality of the world that currently exists without thinking critically about their role will be responsible for enabling it,” writes Anderson.
Media outlets such as NPR are being held accountable by consumers who believe protesters’ faces should be obscured for protection, prompting difficult conversations that weigh the risks of editing news images versus those associated with personal safety.
But “the age-old ethical concerns regarding identity and consent in photojournalism fail to adapt to the hypermodern severity of the anti-Black state surveillance apparatus,” said Morrison. “A current photojournalistic ethics needs to include a deep and researched understanding of the interactions between platform, algorithms, and image sharing on social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, as well as the utmost urgency in the protection of Black life.”
Mentioning its plans to host public panels, ICP told Hyperallergic, “We recognize that due to advancements in facial recognition technology, the protection of protestor safety has emerged with urgency in the field of documentary practice.”
Late last week, the center’s Chief Experience Officer reached out to the group with an invitation to join ICP staff and an independent facilitator in “restorative dialogue.” Morrison declined the invitation, but said the group would be open to hearing from individual staff members regarding “actionable support of their demands.”
“We feel ICP is betraying us, our communities, and its own mandate by not addressing, and swiftly rectifying, this issue during a time of heightened protest against Black death, in service of Black liberation,” Morrison told Hyperallergic. “We believe that ICP has a responsibility to Black people inside and outside its community to invest in decolonial and explicitly pro-Black ethics, in service of a world where photography is not an appendage of the carceral state, but a tool for liberation.”