Sunday, January 27, 2013

Photographs and Photographers

I have mentioned previously that there used to be an old joke that there was a test to gain admission to the New York School of News Photography.  The exam included a question:  If you had the choice between taking a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a sinking ferry or to save women and children aboard that ferry, what film speed would you use?   It is apt for what follows in this post.

Last week I posted the following Pulitzer prize winning photograph, an image of a young couple who had just fatally lost their 2 year old son in the surf when he had wandered away onto the beach from their nearby home: 

The photographer, John L Gaunt, was the subject of criticism for intruding on their grief. 

Thereafter I received an email from Byter Doug: 
Hi Otto,  
That's a very powerful picture of the couple grieving by the beach. I have a copy of a book of prize-winning photos (I think by the Associated Press) and review it occasionally. I look at this one for 10-15 minutes every time. It's very, very powerful.  
I suppose that it's a reminder to parents that they have to be eternally vigilant, especially around young children. If you live by the beach or a busy street, it only takes a few moments for a child to get himself or herself into terrible trouble. Most parents would think "there but for the grace of God goes I". How many times do you look back at your child's life and remember a moment which could have gone horribly wrong? And in this case, for this terribly unfortunate family, it did. I'd imagine that most parents think about such times when they see this picture. 

The other aspect is the impact on this poor couple. It would be bad enough to be indirectly responsible for your child dying. You would never forgive yourself. However, this couple would have been easily identifiable in the picture and it was presented on the front page of a high-circulation newspaper on the next day. 

Suppose that you are publicly identified as parents who were unable to properly supervise their child, which unfortunately resulted in the child's death. To be honest, I don't see how the parents could respond to that. If they didn't have any other children (which isn't identified in the AP book), then it's entirely reasonable to believe that they'd kill themselves out of guilt and public shame. 

It's a very powerful photo. But I'm not sure that I'd take it or submit it. Maybe that's why I don't work for a newspaper. 

Did you ever read about that couple which jumped off a cliff after their child died? They threw down the child's favourite toys, then jumped after them. I could see something like that happening to the couple in this picture quite easily. It would probably depend on whether they'd have any other children to live for. It's so terribly tragic. 

Here's the story --terribly sad... 


Doug raises some interesting points that have been argued almost as long as there has been photography: 
  • To what extent should the photographer be a chronicler of what he or she sees? 
  • Are any topics off limits? 
  • To what extent should the photographer intervene in situations being observed and photographed? 
  • What restraints, if any, should there be on publication? 
  • Does the public's right to see and read news overcome the individual's right to privacy?

Some quick comments: 


As early as the 1876, Willoughby Hooper (1837-1912) was photographing the skeletal survivors of the Madras monsoon famine. He was one of the first to take such photographs.

Hooper had the sufferers brought to his studio in groups where he then photographed them.

It was argued by some that the photographing of such victims was exploitative of their suffering; others argued that the photographs raised awareness and could result in alleviation of their suffering. Sympathy for Hooper, however, evaporated when the public learned that he had simply returned the people, including children, he had photographed, to their original countryside without any assistance, no food, no medical treatment. 


The following photograph was taken by Kevin Carter when he was 33. It has been the subject of a previous Bytes post at:

The photograph, taken in 1993, shows a barely alive child struggling to reach a feeding centre. As Carter positioned himself to photograph the child, a vulture landed in the shot and waited for the child to die so that it could eat her. Carter waited 20 minutes in the hope that the vulture would spread its wings but it did not do so, so Carter took the shot, chased the bird away and left. Depressed and with his own mental demons, he left the Sudan the next day. 

The photo highlighted the plight of the Sudanese suffering but also prompted discussion as to the boundaries of photography and as to his non-intervention to assist the child to the feeding centre. There was also criticism of watching the child for 20 minutes rather than assisting. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida summed it up: "The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” 

Two months after receiving the 1994 Pulitzer for the photograph, Carter committed suicide. 


British photojournalist Ruhani Rabin was engaged in photographing the plight of the Sudanese in 1998. The Sudanese government had yielded to international pressure and allowed food aid to be distributed. Rabin took the photo below in the camp of Ajiep where more than 100 people per day were dying. It shows a crippled boy, who had queued for hours for food, having his food taken by a stronger man who is striding away: 

Criticised for not intervening, Stoddart responded “I am a photographer, not a policeman or an aid worker. All I can do is try to tell the truth as I see it with my camera.” His photograph did, however, raise funds for Sudanese relief. 


In 1989 a human crush occurred at a soccer match at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. 96 people died and 766 were injured, the worst stadium-related disaster in British history and one of the world's worst football disasters. Many of those who died were pressed against wire fences. Some had managed to get over the fences. Photographers on the playing field area photographed those who were crushed against the wire: 

Should photographs such as these have been taken? Published?.. 

News broadcasts today are immediate and much more visual. We want our news and we are disappointed if we don’t see on the spot pics and videos. Does our desire for news and images override privacy, dignity and taste?


If we need any further consideration of the above issues, consider the photograph of the body of 15 year old Fabienned Cherisma. In 2010 after an earthquake in Haiti, Fabienne was shot three times by the Haitian police, as a looter. Two of those shots were at point blank range. She had taken two plastic chairs and three framed pictures. 

The photograph of Fabienne lying face down in the dirt on top of the pictures is poignant: 

The photograph, by Paul Hansen, won the International News Image award at the Swedish Picture of the Year Awards. 

Canadian photographer Lucas Oleniuk also won an award, in Canada, for his photo of Fabienne Cherisma, with looters and their spoils in the background. 

Photographer Nathan Weber took a different photograph, one that also showed the various photographers on the scene: 

The Weber photograph caused further questioning of the appropriateness of taking such photographs, which in this case continued even after Fabienne’s family arrived. 

Difficult questions and issues that will still be argued 100 years from now.

As Doug said, "I'm not sure that I'd take it or submit it. Maybe that's why I don't work for a newspaper."

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