Here’s something for us all to ponder in these days when journalism is more and more about emotion…
On the night of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a woman named Aline Marie attended a prayer vigil at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was packed with local residents and the media. After about 45 minutes, Marie saw the statue of Mary and knelt down to pray.
“I sat there in a moment of devastation with my hands in prayer pose asking for peace and healing in the hearts of men,” she recalls. “I was having such a strong moment and my heart was open, and I started to cry.”
Her mood changed abruptly, she says, when “all of a sudden I hear ‘clickclickclickclickclick’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal.”
What particularly troubles her, she says, is “no one came up to me and said ‘Hi, I’m from this paper and I took your photograph.’ No one introduced themselves. I felt violated. And yes, it was a lovely photograph, but there is a sense of privacy in a moment like that, and they didn’t ask.”…
Here is the picture in question. NPR goes on to pose this question:
What are your thoughts? Should photographers interact with their subjects in moments of grief, or is it more respectful to leave them alone?
Which is a good one.
I’m old school on this. Way old school. Recently, in a comment on another thread, I told this anecdote about an experience that deeply affected the way I look at this sort of thing:
One of my first assignments as a reporter, back in the 70s, was to go interview a family that had lost some children in a fire. It was one of those awful situations of a family that lived in a rural shack heated by a wood-or-coal-burning stove, and some coals got out of the stove and caused the house to burn like kindling.
The photographer and I found the home where the survivors were staying with relatives. It was a house just like the one that had burned, way out in the country. The parents of the dead children were at the funeral home making arrangements. The family that lived in the home let us in, and then left us to wait in the front room while they congregated back in the kitchen. There was no conversation between us.
The photographer — much older and more experienced than I was — and I sat on the edges of our chairs, feeling EXTREMELY awkward, intensely feeling how much we were intruding, and unwelcome. But I guess maybe those poor folks didn’t feel empowered to turn us away.
We glanced at each other uncomfortably every few moments, and stared around the room the rest of the time.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the wood-burning stove in the center of the room. There were burned spots in the battered linoleum floor all around it. Another imminent tragedy, staring me in the face.
We just sat there, waiting to pester those poor bereaved parents, dreading their return, for about an hour.
Finally, one of us — I think it was Bob, the photog — said “Let’s get out of here.” And we did.
Here’s the upshot of the story. Although it became more and more common over the years for news organizations to harass bereaved families in their grief and demand to know how they felt — I even worked with some people who maintained that it gave families a welcome catharsis — I resolved that day that if I were ever an editor, I would never send anyone on such an assignment.
As it turns out, I was an editor a couple of years later, and for the rest of my career. And I never forgot that resolution. Reporters can attest that I sent them on a lot of awkward, unpleasant assignments over the years, but I never sent anyone out on one like that.
Now, having declared myself entirely against this sort of thing, I can offer some defense of the photographer in this case. First, this doesn’t appear to have been the worst sort of intrusion, as there is no indication that the subject of the photo was a bereaved family member. Second, if you are going to take pictures like this — and that is to me debatable — then it’s disingenuous to demand that the subject be asked first. The journalistic version of the Observer Effect kicks in. You can’t get a picture like that — an honest, real one — after you’ve made the subject aware of your presence. And really, do you even want a picture of someone who would say “yes,” and then strike a pose for you? I think not. Such a photo would not only be ethically compromised, it would be downright creepy.
Thoughts? Or feelings, considering the topic?