Ethically Evaluative Photographs

by Carlo Levy

Ethically evaluative photographs, as the name implies, are photographs that visually raise awareness upon and increase exposure of ethical and social issues. Ethically evaluative photographs are the basic foundation of photojournalism. Essentially a photojournalist seeks to disclose information, reveal truth, and explain current events through photographs. Barrett mentions Cornell Capa as a revered photojournalist who directed the International Center of Photography and empowered new photojournalists during a period when their category of products was declining in the market.[i] Among these new photojournalists was Sebastião Salgado.

Sebastião Salgado’s image entitled The Swollen Cities: São Paulo, Brazil is a prime example of an ethically evaluative photograph.[ii] The subject of the image is a large number of babies and toddlers playing on top of a roof in the city of São Paulo. The babies are abandoned, and the roof is on the Foundation for Child Welfare building. According to Barrett, an estimated 430 children reside in the FEBEM building, “35 percent of whom were found abandoned on city streets; the others were delivered to the center by parents no longer able to care for them”.[iii]

The image is almost surreal. One would not expect to see that many infants wandering alone atop the roof of a major metropolitan building in the heart of a large city. Salgado balances the towering multitude of skyscrapers in the background with a multitude of abandoned babies in the foreground. Whereas the buildings are tall, rigid, and lifeless, these babies are dynamic, small, fragile, and full of life. Perhaps this is the message that Salgado intended with this image. He wanted to explain the harsh reality of a social situation in São Paulo and other cities like it. He explained that these babies are not to be ignored because they were unseen. He exposed their visibility to viewers, stating that the social issue of child abandonment was as big as the buildings in the city. He successfully raised awareness to these hidden children.

[i] Barrett, Terry. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006, p. 72.

[ii] Salgado, Sebastião. The Swollen Cities: São Paulo, Brazil. Foundation for Child Welfare, São Paulo, Brazil. 1996.

[iii] Barrett, p. 73.


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