Witness: A Classroom Guide

A guide to help educators use photojournalist Donna DeCesare's Dart Media presentation, "Witnessing and Picturing Violence," to teach ethical reporting.

Well-suited for a variety of journalism courses, acclaimed photojournalist and journalism educator Donna DeCesare’s Dart Media presentation, Witnessing and Picturing Violence,  covers ethical issues, reviews good photojournalism practice, considers cultural awareness and sensitivity and questions assumptions about maintaining journalistic objectivity while acting as a witness to human suffering.

DeCesare has shown versions of this presentation at Columbia University, Harvard University and in her own classes at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is an associate professor of documentary photography. DeCesare created the presentation with both journalism professionals and students in mind. Her original intent was to highlight some similarities between social workers and journalists, noting that both perform the function of being compassionate listeners in times of tragedy and crises.

Following are suggestions for using the presentation in journalism classrooms:


  • Consider at what point to use the presentation during your course. DeCesare doesn’t show her own work until the end of the term, after preparing students with a broad range of photojournalistic approaches, examples of local photojournalism, context and historical background.
  • Incorporate photojournalism history into the teaching of documenting human tragedy. DeCesare stresses that students need to understand the history and development of the field in order to effectively carry the work forward.
  • Emphasize the importance of accuracy in constructing the journalistic narrative. “Documentation of human suffering can rise to the level of art, but reportage must honor the specificity of the people and the moment,” says DeCesare.
  • Have students work on projects with each other. Photographing and interviewing fellow students is a good way to practice active listening and respect for others in a safe, local environment.


1. Working responsibly under tremendous time and business pressures

DeCesare discussed the time she took to develop relationships and rapport with the people she photographs. What challenges does this present for photojournalists under tight deadlines? Can DeCesare’s approaches be used when photographers have less time? How can her work serve as a model for covering breaking news of human trauma?

Says DeCesare: “When you have to get something quick, maybe you start to tread a little heavier than you should.” But, she adds, you can still be present in the moment, make time to deal with the immediate situation and be fully there with the person you’re photographing. “You can be attentive and patient in the time period you have.”

2. Building relationships with the people you photograph

How does DeCesare build rapport with people? How does this help her document human tragedy and grief?

She says: “I always try to make eye contact with people to make sure they’re aware of my presence.” If this isn’t possible, DeCesare tries to stay long enough to introduce herself after she shoots. She recommends explaining your goals and purpose and letting the subject decide whether to be photographed.

3. Closeness to subjects and journalistic objectivity

Does DeCesare risk losing journalistic objectivity as she developed personal relationships?

“I really don’t personally believe in an objective ideal … We’re human beings; we are involved.” DeCesare says that journalists can be more proactive in giving people a voice in their own story while still “directing” the overall form and content of the news story. Closer relationships can help gain trust and get a deeper level of information and more complex understanding, she says.

4. Consent and Consequences

How much responsibility does the journalist bear for protecting people from the risks of identification? Consider risks of both physical harm and social stigma in your answers.

Says DeCesare:

“Much as we might wish to, we cannot make promises about consequences. We can’t control what happens especially with images published online. They can be taken out of context and are also available to be seen anywhere there is a web connection. This is a reason that complete caption material garnered from reporting and direct interview with the subject is critical.”

“Part of the process must be helping unsophisticated subjects think through possible consequences of exposure and risk. Just as writers must explain the difference between ‘on the record’ and ‘off the record’ to story sources, so photographers must explain the process of informed consent to subjects and parents of subjects who are minors. This is especially urgent when treating subject matter of a sensitive personal or social nature related to sex, religion, politics and health conditions or situations that provoke social stigma.” 

5. Respecting cultural differences

How does DeCesare show respect for history and culture in her work? Why is it important for a journalist to understand and avoid “othering,” and why is it crucial not to portray people from a Euro-American ethnocentric point of view?

Says DeCesare:

“When photographing in other cultures, it is important to maintain a humanistic and compassionate vision. If part of the journalist’s role is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,’ we must be prepared to evaluate what that means in different contexts. We need not embrace complete moral relativism, but we should strive to help our readers make human connections to the people and situations portrayed in order to foster understanding. When we rely on cultural stereotypes, we not only diminish that social group’s diversity, we also dishonor people’s individuality.”

6. Documenting grief: One case study

DeCesare talks in her presentation about a photograph of a funeral in Colombia (at 2:32). Take another look at the image. Note that only one face is partially exposed.

  • Why do you think most of the faces are hidden?
  • How does this image differ from most news photographs we see of funerals in the United States?
  • What makes this image a strong documentation of tragedy and grief?
  • What factors allowed DeCesare to take this photograph?

Says DeCesare: “People ask a lot about the picture at the funeral." As she comments in her presentation, she could not have taken the photograph without building a good relationship with the mother of the victim. While photographing, she was able to be physically close to the sorrow and suffering, but also wanted to protect the identity of friends and family.

This presentation may be used for classroom discussions only and is not available for copying or distribution without written permission from Donna DeCesare.