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The Ethical Dilemma Photojournalists Face: Whether To Take a Picture or To Save First?

Posted by on October 21, 2014

By Yi Liu

When faced with the opportunity to capture a photographic moment when the subject is facing death, whether to act as a recorder or as a rescuer is a difficult decision. Many upon death photos are controversial and critics question the photographers. However, I would rather believe that at the moment of death, those photographers were simply witnesses. They just take out their camera to capture the brief pivotal moment instinctively. There is no thinking going on at the time. Those death moment photos should be respected. This collage reveals three examples of death moment photographs.


Near Death Photographs

The photographer Kevin Carter’s work The Starving Sudan won the Pulitzer award; however, this photograph touches off a heated debate in the society. “Carter waited in hopes that the vulture would reposition itself near the child, allowing him to better seize the moment, articulate the moment and convey the horror and terror of the moment to the world” (Heynen,3).  Some people appreciate this photo, because it was well taken and drew people’s attention on the condition of Sudan people. But the critics argue that he chose to take a photo of a dying kid rather than save her at that time.

In the top left photo a girl lay dead on the ground. According to the Color Magazine, “Fourteen photographers stood over the body of Fabienne Cherisma, just moments after she had been shot by police on January 19, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti” (Colors, 1). Many people felt angry with those “cold-blooded” photojournalists. For those people, a body is sacrosanct, so we should show our respect to the body in grief and lament rather than rush to capture the horrific moment with a camera lens.

The bottom left photo appeared in a newspaper with the title, “A Picture of Controversy.” A man was pushed on the subway track and a freelance named Abbasi took the picture of his last struggling attempts to climb up the platform and save his own life. Critics have blasted Abbasi for not doing enough to save Han after he was pushed off a subway platform.

These photos above share a common feature, as all of them are about the moment of death. Different actions of those photographers, either taking a photo of that critical moment or saving the character first, caused different reactions from public critics. How can we judge the different reactions? If we want to figure out which is right and which is wrong, we must decide which comes first: the photographer’s professional interests or ethic responsibility to society? According to Heynen, photographers and journalists should never put themselves into the situations they are covering according to their professional requirements. They should be only witnesses and recorders. Furthermore, at that critical moment, time is so limited to think about how to react.

As for the critical voices, Sean Thomas Dougherty has an in-depth analysis in Killing the Messenger, “Carter’s photo begs the viewer to act. Why then was it met with such public critique as unethical? Because it worked. People felt horror, empathy, and angry but without the ability to act, without the necessary political apparatus to do something. So many turned, as in ancient Greece, and attacked the messenger” (610). This analysis apply to many critics’ consciousness. The Sudanese girl and Haitian girl pictured are both striking to the outside world. When they see those overwhelming pictures they feel guilty and ashamed of their incompetence to help. In order to comfort themselves, they turned to blame the photographers who present the pictures to them.

All in all, considering the time limits, professional requirements, and why people criticize, we can understand the photographers better and appreciate the death moment photos with respect. They are here reminding us of the suffering people in the world and expecting us to react!

Works Cited

“Colors.” This Is 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, Shot Dead by a Policeman after Looting Three Picture Frames. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Dougherty, Sean Thomas The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 608-616

Heynen, N. (2006), “But it’s Alright, Ma, it’s Life, and Life Only”: Radicalism as Survival. Antipode, 38: 916–929. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2006.00486.x

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