to shoot or not to shoot?

Sitting in a hotel room in Copenhagen, shut off from the world; and apparent worldly distractions, I should be putting my assignment images and commentary together; and then I get distracted. An article from Chase Jarvis’ blog with comments from Amy Weston who took the iconic image of the woman jumping from the window in her burning building landed in my inbox; and an hour later I am still reading and contemplating the ethics involved in capturing images like this.

2011© Amy Weston. All rights reserved.

2011© Amy Weston. All rights reserved.

After reading Amy’s description of the moments leading up to and after the image; I went to the original post that Chase had posted soon after the riots in London and the publication of the image. Chase was on a his moral high-horse and suggested that she should not have taken the photo as he, when in similar situations, has not done. [I question this viewpoint.]

So many of the comments posted there were anti- the fact that she had taken the image; and that she should have been helping instead. Disagreed with many of their comments for a number of reasons. Firstly, in this particular situation, it is evident from the image that there were already fire fighters or riot police at the base of the building reaching out to catch her, so those comments were moot. But the greater question was whether the photographer should be recording such images; and what their first priority should be in such a situation. Okay, so if you were the only person on the scene; and your assistance could result in saving a life, then go ahead, put the camera down and help. But, the photojournalist’s responsibility is to record accurately and to disseminate that information, both for news and posterity. So many of the people commenting said that she should not have taken it; and I disagreed with that.

James Nachtwey was name checked; and I had a quick look at his site. Some really impressive images; especially some of the black and white ones; and the site deserves a much closer look. [Will most probably end up on my 'looking at' section where I discuss artists because there were images that I would really like to comment on further.] But what immediately struck me as relevant to this discussion was his comment on the home page of his site:

“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten
and must not be repeated.”

And this is what I think is the role of the photojournalist, to bring issues to the attention of Joe Public so that he is aware of them and responds accordingly. There is no place for lurid sensationalism; but if the image is strong it will evoke a far stronger reaction than just text. I remember when I first saw Amy Weston’s image; I know I drew my breath because in such a simple, graphic, yet very powerful image she had illustrated the way in which people were being affected by the riots. It said so much more than the images of youths rioting and looting with their hoodies hiding their faces.

Reading the comments to Chase’s initial post, there was an interesting comment by a person called Jonny, ‘The decision to censor ourselves at the risk of temporary offense is a far worse sin than the long term regret when we have no visual record of the event in question…’, which to me, highlights another moral issue; that the photojournalist actually as a duty and a moral obligation to record what he sees.

Anyway, the comments took me on a little trip around the internet, raising questions about images that are so strong that they repel the viewer, but it is in that very revulsion that we feel, that we find the images true value. Again, sensationalism is not what I am talking about here.

I followed a link from somewhere to the National Public Radio (NPR) blog  which drew parallels with the strength of Amy’s image and the ‘kissing couple in the Vancouver riots’, which we now all know was not what it seemed to portray; and Tyler Hick’s images of a Somalian child that was featured in the New York Times recently. All three images were seen as becoming single iconic images portraying those events. [Took this idea further when I met up with people in the evening; and Amy's image was one that all could instantly recall. We discussed how the simplicity of the image, with its strong graphic shapes and colours, and the anonymity of the subject was what made it so strong. But I digress, the original question posed at the beginning of this entry was whether Amy was right in capturing the image.

Salon.com had an interesting article on Tyler Hick's images and posed the question whether a single still image was still capable of changing the world; and there were comments that in order for the image to really have value, it is essential that one is also aware of the back-story linked to the image. That the two together bring force; and that alone they possibly do not. Was also suggested that the image itself is not as important as the explanation of the context, this point of view put forward by Susie Linfiled, author of 'The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence', which in itself sounds an interesting book. Agree that the context can help an image have more value, but tend to disagree that the context is more important than the image because it is the image which will initially attract attention; and possibly cause the viewer to read the context.

So, the focus of this comment is moving slightly—no longer only concerned with whether to shoot or not—but now also including the idea of whether to show or not. The first question came about because of the idea of what should you do when in a situation where you could possibly help as opposed to recording an image. As mentioned above, this did not really impact on Amy Weston's decision as to whether or not she should shoot—there were already more qualified people on the scene to help the jumping girl. But now the focus spreads to whether or not, having taken an image which is potentially distressful, should that image be displayed to the general public—and if so, when and how.

The Tyler Hick's image of Somalia caused a fair reaction when it was posted on the front page of the New York Times; and in the online version of the newspaper on August 2, 2011. A number of sites, including Salon.com—as discussed above—questioned the reasoning behind the publication of the image. There was comment on the Huffington Post, and the executive editor, Bill Keller was seen to justify the decision to run with the image when the majority of US media was concentrating on economic concerns. His comment, is included here:" ... We realize, of course, that the story du jour is the debt vote — to which we devoted the lead story and upwards of four pages this morning — but there's no reason that has to eclipse a human catastrophe in Africa. Readers can follow more than one important story at a time. Jeffrey and Tyler went to great trouble and some risk to get as close as they could to the calamity in Somalia. They sent us a harrowing story and vivid, arresting photographs. We put them before the attention of our readers. That's our job." [Sourced from the Huffington Post as referenced above.]

From here, it was a short jump to Jodi Bieber’s award winning portrait of Aisha, a young Afghan woman mutilated by her husband. Not only did the image win First prize in the category Portraits Singles in 2010 World Press Photo contest, it also featured on the August 1, 2010 cover of TIME magazine.  Anyway, this brings me back to the idea of ‘to shoot or not to shoot’; and ‘to show or not to show’. The image of Bibi, although harrowing has been sensitively captured and retains her dignity. Yes, the disfigurement to her face is not attractive, but it is necessary for the photo-journalist to publicise such materials. Jodi’s image of Aisha is not a one-off sensationalist piece of work, it forms part of a larger body of work that she has completed drawing attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan.

Read an interesting article concerning the choice of Jodi’s image for the front page of TIME magazine on the blog ‘blue, two, three’, where the author of the blog again questions the morality and ethics of some images. Also interesting comments Richard Stengel, Managing Editor at TIME as to why the image was chosen. However, the blog writer’s ending comment is quite telling: ‘If there were a line to be drawn, I would draw it at the point where my camera would obstruct humanity, instead of supporting it: We must not shoot the drowning (wo)man, if we can save them from drowning by putting our camera down.’ I think this is where I stand on the capturing of such graphic images.

Watched a short movie/BMW commercial called ‘Power Keg‘ about a war photojournalist who dies still trying to get the shot. Filmed in 2001; so there is no link to the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Although the short film is a commercial, it does raise the question of why photojournalists do what they do—the idea that one picture might just make a difference.

But these images must be taken; and they must be shown, and preserved for posterity. They are often the images which make us connect with; and understand events that have past. I could go on and on, citing famous images which have become iconic, but think I must stop.

[Postscript: Two interesting articles about the 'Falling Man' image from 9/11 can be found here (read especially the section entitled 'The photographer is no stranger to history') and here.]

[Update—22 December 2011: Find myself revisiting the ethics/morality concern here.]

Follow my footsteps…

Realise that this post was a little on the long side; with links scattered throughout, so I have listed then here as well in case you just want to go and have a look at them without reading through my thoughts!

Amy Weston responds to Chase Jarvis on the London’s burning image
Amy Weston’s images on London burning on Time Lightbox
Chase Jarvis’ initial post on his blog regarding the morality of taking such images
James Natchway’s site 
NPR blog discusses the Amy Weston image
NPR discusses Tyler Hicks’ Somalian images
Salon.com: Can a photograph still change the world?
The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Susie Linfield)
New York Times (Image of the front page—August 02, 2011)
New York Times online, August 02, 2011
Aisha And The Plight Of Women In Afghanistan
blue, two, three blog comments on the Aisha image as front page of TIME magazine
Powder Keg BMW commercial

  1. Catherine
    September 29, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Very interesting reading Vicki and I share your views. I recently read an article about George Rodger, who helped to found Magnum Photos. He stopped being a war correspondent after his experience at Belsen when he realised that he had been looking for graphically pleasing compositions of the piles of bodies there. At least he was sufficiently self-reflective to realise that. Here’s a different link as I can’t find the first one – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Rodger I can imagine that there are many photo journalists who just dive in and get inured to it all because their emotions have become blunted.

    • vickim
      October 4, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      Hey Catherine Thanks for the link. Will have a look at it and what he says. I came across something a while back, but have lost the link about how photojournalists had apparently re-arranged a dead girl’s body in Haiti to make a more interesting image – wish I had kept that link!

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