Alex Coghe: How to Make Humanist Photography That is Respectful of People’s Dignity

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. In December of 2021, we introduced photojournalist and photography coach Alex Coghe and his approach to We asked Alex a few questions about his humanist approach and he’s kindly supplied a few answers. You may be interested to see Alex Coghe’s new book, The Ricoh Files.

By Alex Coghe

I was asked to go deeper into the humanistic aspects that inspire my photography. So I am answering to some questions.

From the project: They ask me for photos – 2021
From the project: They ask me for photos – 2021

Anything starts from this statement I proposed in a post on this blog:

I believe the dignity of the people portrayed and respect never fail.

How does this work in my photography?

Despite I am a photographer who uses spontaneous photography a lot, without asking for permission many times, i am not hiding what i do on the street. My presence as a photographer is obvious and I don’t use ninjia tactics. My every choice is made in awareness and in the will to portray reality as it is. Avoiding sensationalism or altering to make a situation more dramatic.

You can see it through my decisions to leave the photo as natural as possible without those pushed post productions that aim to contrast and make everything more dramatic. But this approach influences on a technical level also my choice of lenses ranging from 35m to 40mm. In this way I have a result more similar to that of the vision of the human eye, avoiding making people ugly due to lens distortion. Many associate with asking permission from people before photographing them with respect for them. But I don’t think so: you can also ask for permission but if your approach and your mindset is wrong people will be uncomfortable in front of your lens.

I believe that if you are a person who is really interested in the other and you are not taking a picture only for yourself, if there is real communication and intention, in respect, this is felt by the person photographed, even if you do not ask him/her before to be able to photograph him/her.

How does this relate to Humanist Photography as a genre/field?

Today we assist too many times to photographers that are not really interested in humanity and yet they photograph people. This is because they make photography for the wrong reasons: to get famous, to win awards, to have objects, pieces in their compositions and they are forgetting the individual with his/her dignity. Or simply they are photographers focused only to build their project, which is often only driven by their personality and not that of the subject and theme. In that case clearly photography is just a selfish act. And this is not good at all.

In my career I could see for my direct experience as Humanist Photography can be a great tool of change and improvement for a social issue. This is the reason hy I collaborate with NGOs and I offered my service as photographer for free in several situations.

Is there ever tension in these issues that you experience in your own work or the work that you observe others do?

A big issue is about not respecting really the culture of people. Many photographers think to solve everything by buying people. Yes, some photographers buy people. for example they use models using traditional clothing of a community, even to propose their documentary workshops. The result can obviously also have an aesthetic impact and they will be sure to bring home beautiful photos, but I consider it an absolutely negative thing to do at various levels. It is a question of a cultural appropriation which, counting with the false and the posed, also damages the sociological reception of images.

And after all we have seen how even among photographers considered masters this practice has continued for years and continues today, especially among those who today prefer to define themselves as storytellers.

In 2018 Polaris Images commissioned me a breaking news work on the situation of migrants arriving in Mexico City. Today I am talking to you about that work and how, in carrying it out, the dignity of people was the priority aspect that I took care to preserve.

In photojournalism there is a thin line that demarcates the territory of documentation from that of the exploitation of people through images. The photojournalist is required to document what is happening with images and texts. In approaching certain issues, already difficult in themselves, the photographer should take care of photographing reality as it is, without sweetening it or making it more fascinating, but above all he/she should avoid dramatizing events for his/her own gain. Unfortunately this happens more and more rarely and we are witnessing aesthetic extremes to give character to the photographic work.

The Human Caravan coverage

Hundreds of immigrants crossed the south border of Mexico from Central America (Honduras mostly) arrived in a “caravan” and they were hosted at “Casa del Peregrino” a first reception humanitarian center.

How I approached the work on assignment

I don’t do a lot of breaking news but when I do it I give my all. I document in advance on the issue to be addressed in order to have a mental order and choose a certain setting rather than another. Obviously I am aware that there will be other colleagues in the place dedicated to the documentation and I also consider the way of telling the various small stories that I will meet in a different way, in order not to have images similar to those of all the others.

I mentally referred to the work on the Great Depression commissioned in the United States by the FSA. The model had to be that to ensure dignity to the people portrayed.

The work required as much empathic contact as possible with the subjects portrayed. Talk to them and take an interest in their story before you even start taking pictures.

When I say that a photographer reveals a lot about himself I am referring to the fact that, for example, in the photos you immediately notice if the subjects feel uncomfortable and the exact opposite if, instead, the photographer was able to empathize with the subjects and do not make the act of being photographed as something to be suffered.

As a photographer, first of all, I am interested in preserving people’s dignity. In this case we are talking about people who have been forced to leave their country in spite of themselves. And where they would like to return as soon as conditions allow. All this must emerge from the photos of a truly humanist photographer.

In my head there was undoubtedly the idea of making photos as iconic as possible but at the same time in full respect of the person portrayed.

In reviewing this work after three years I am still satisfied with what I have managed to achieve.

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.