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Photos of tragedy raise moral questions, York U prof says

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October 3, 2005

Source: York University:

Photos of tragedy raise moral questions, York U prof says

Photojournalism enables us to bear witness to tragedy, but may also violate the dignity of the people it portrays and promote stereotypes of them, York University professor Fuyuki Kurasawa says.

photojournalism Kurasawa, a professor of Sociology, will address a group of high school photography teachers Tuesday about the importance of discussing in their classrooms how depictions of human tragedies are used.

The event is part of the World Press Photo 05 exhibit which is visiting the Allen Lambert Galleria, BCE Place (Bay and Wellington Streets) from Oct. 3-23. Kurasawa is one of several speakers taking part in the educational evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday. Photo by Arko Datta, India, Reuters

"We need to have a debate," Kurasawa says. "We need to ask, ‘Do we have a responsibility to make images of human suffering available but at the same time to be aware of the effects these photos have?’"

World Press Photo, an independent, non-profit organization devoted to promoting professionalism among press photographers internationally, is the organizer of the world’s largest and most prestigious photojournalism competition. The winning photo this year, by Indian photographer Arko Datta, for Reuters, shows a woman on a beach, mourning a relative killed by the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami that took the lives of almost 300,000 and left millions destitute.

"We need to ask: if we were her would we want that photo published?" said Kurasawa. "I’m not here to provide ready-made answers, but I think we must ask what are the roles and responsibilities of the photographer, the audience, and the subject of the photograph?"

KurasawaKurasawa is researching the relationship between human rights and visual representations of suffering, a topic he first became interested in many years ago when he was exposed to images from the Ethiopian famine, and is studying the power of a photograph to move public opinion and cause governments to act. Right: Professor Fuyuki Kurasawa

It is important, he says, to recognize there is a tension between the benefits of photojournalism and the potential exploitation of people who are experiencing very private moments of horror and grief.

"With the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, we need to ask how the affected people were portrayed – for example, why were poor and homeless African-Americans overwhelmingly perceived as passive victims or criminals?" said Kurasawa.

"A lot of journalists are very interested in these questions but, given their daily lives, they don’t have a lot of time to think about them. This is where I hope my work can help."

York University’s Faculty of Arts is one of the educational sponsors of the exhibit. Click here for details.

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as 180,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 10 faculties and 21 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.


For more information, contact:
Janice Walls, Media Relations, York University, 416-736-2100 x22101 /



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