Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

How Close Is Too Close?

Posted on: March 26, 2011

  • In: Perspective
  • Comments Off on How Close Is Too Close?

“Mrs. Smith, your dog just died.  How do you feel?”  That’s a brand of reporting I’m not going to talk about here.  But I’ll get close.

I want to consider photographic journalism because it involves three of my favorite subjects: journalism, photography, and ethics.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve spent more than a little time hanging out of airplanes in-flight and crawling in the dirt and weeds in attempts to get the shot.

Certain iconic photographs in history are because they are.  I’m thinking of the heavily-burdened President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office.  I’m thinking of the swearing in of Lyndon Baines Johnson aboard Air Force One following the assassination of JFK.  I’m even thinking of the footprint on the surface of the moon.  There are professionals whose proprietary job is to chronicle such moments.  Each of these pictures are important, and they were captured because history demanded it.

[Note: additional text will be found by mousing over each picture.  Click to enlarge.]

" small step..." Photo credit: NASA - Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

"The loneliest job in the world." Photo Credit: New York Times - George Tames

LBJ's Oath of Office. Photo credit: White House - Cecil W. Stoughton

There are at least two other kinds of photo-journalism; I’ll call them ‘journalism by opportunity’ and ‘enterprise journalism’.  The first is impactful if a bit easier to get, and the second is impactful and dangerous to get.  Both require being in the right place at the right time.

The subject came up last week when we were Skyping with Nick in Japan.  He, too, takes pictures; it was a large part of his college major.  But he told us that – given current events following the earthquake and tsunami – he was reluctant to get too close for fear of invading someone’s privacy; of interfering with their grief and loss.  These are people he lives with; works with; loves.  I understand completely.

I told him that we (outsiders) might never know the depth of the tragedy and of the mounting needs if he didn’t capture images that effectively conveyed those messages.  We might never be moved to help.

But I knew that there was a whole lot more to the issue.

There is a point in journalism when the question must be asked: “Is this necessary?”  Then, too: “For whom is this necessary?”  And, “Does the necessity outweigh the invasion of privacy?”  And even if the necessity does outweigh the invasion of privacy, “Should the story not be written or the shot not taken because privacy is sacrosanct?”

National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry found a 12-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, he believed, embodied the desolation of spirit experienced by the Afghan people in the mid-80’s.

"The Afghan Girl" - 1984. Photo credit: National Geographic - Steve McCurry

This picture was ‘journalism by opportunity’ in the sense that it was rare for an Afghan female to be photographed at all.  Many of us became aware of the Afghan conflict of the 1980’s and of the plight of refugees the world over through this girl’s eyes.  We could see deeply into her soul.  Was her privacy invaded?

How about this girl’s?

...a thousand words. Photo credit: AP - Asahi Shimbun, Toshiyuki Tsunenari

I used this picture in my other blog, ElderBlog, about a week ago. I even went so far as to zoom in closer so we could better see her agony.  Did the photographer (or I) invade her privacy?  I think not.  I think she was so far beyond caring about matters of self-concern that she gave not one moment’s thought to the camera to her left.

One could argue, however, that her privacy may have been violated anyway because she was unable (or too distant) to object.

And what of the value of this photograph?  Does it outweigh its cost?  I say yes.  This young lady’s face humanizes what could be perceived as an abstract situation half way around the world.  Who can look at her and not feel the pain?  The obviously-desired result would be compassion and the will to provide some kind of relief.

The ethics of news photography goes the other way, too.  There’s the producer (the photographer), and the consumer (you and me).  What about our sensitivities?  Are we being violated in some way by exposure to these images?  War photography can help to answer.

Body of victim being carried away from Soweto uprising in 1976. Photo credit: Sam Nzima

Vietcong man shot by S.Vietnamese police. Photo credit: AP - Eddie Adams

Kim Phuc, age 9, burning after napalm attack. Photo credit: AP - Nick Ut

Do we really need to see the bullet exiting the Vietcong man’s head?  Do we really need to see Kim Phuc’s body burning from napalm?  Do we really need to see the dead body of a 9-year-old boy being carried away from the Soweto uprising?

The answer to each question is ‘no.’  In your most vivid imagination, you could never experience what these people have experienced, and you shouldn’t want to.

And the answer to each question is ‘yes.’  Most of us know little of the horrors of war.  Seeing – and feeling – pictures like these helps to make real life real.

Another question of ethics, if not morality: should the journalist ever become involved in the subject’s situation?  At what point does the reporter put away the notebook, or the news photographer lay down the camera to render aid?

Nick Ut was shooting rapid fire during that scene in Trang Bang, and when he realized what he was looking at, quickly secured his cameras, helped Kim Phuc as best he could, and took her to the hospital.   She says he saved her

Nick Ut & Kim Phuc Photo credit: George Eastman House

life.  He says he just did what he should.  They remain close friends to this day.

This story highlights one of the most troubling challenges for journalists; while they are often hardened professionals doing their jobs, they are – at the same time – human.  Even then, I’m not suggesting that what Nick Ut did should stand as an example for all journalists.  A decision such as his can only be made in the moment.

We are witnesses to events in history through news photography.

A man stands up for freedom. Photo credit: Newsweek - Charlie Cole

Jack Ruby to Lee Harvey Oswald: 'You killed my president, you rat." Photo credit: Robert H. Jackson

"Soldiers are cutting us down." Photo credit: John Filo

This, perhaps, is the most difficult of pictures to see:

The end of a life. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps

Why is it necessary to see this?  Because it makes very personal the point that war is hell, and that real people die and are injured; people we love.  It’s necessary because – knowing this – we can question those who would send our loved ones to war.  And if we are satisfied that it is indeed necessary, at least we will have made our peace knowing the risks.

Not all of life is about conflict and peril, of course.  Yet, questions of journalistic ethics still arise.

The kiss seen 'round the world. V-J Day Photo credit: Life - Alfred Eisenstaedt

This famous photo circulated around the world.  It was taken on the day Japan surrendered, ending World War II.  In the frenzied celebration that followed, this nurse was embraced by a sailor who kissed her passionately.  The picture expressed the euphoria felt by so many, and became known as “The Times Square Kiss,” taking place amidst the New York City landmark on August 14, 1945.

Did the nurse object?  Were either the sailor or the nurse married?  Did their spouses find out?

Aww, heck.  It’s a happy picture.  Leave it alone.

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