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The photographer’s dilemma

In my internet travels this morning, I found these pictures (click on them to enlarge them):

From my research it's unknown what happened to the girl in the first photo, as the photographer didn't stay around to find out. He spent 20 minutes waiting for the perfect shot, with the vulture spreading its wings, but it didn't happen, so he took the photo and then left to talk to God underneath a tree and cry. A few months after winning a Pulitzer prize for the photo he committed suicide.

The second photo had the girl die, and neither the photographer, nor the rescuers, could do anything about it. She was trapped in mud debris from an erupting volcano that had solidified like concrete around her legs and up to her chest, preventing her from being pulled out. It also prevented her from being able to relieve herself (eg. she was unable to go to the toilet). She was trapped like that for 60 hours, with people around her unable to do anything for her, before dying. She knew she was going to die. There was no equipment there that could save her.

The dilemma of the photographer is clear, and yet is criticised for being inhuman. You're there to record the event, knowing that if people see it, enough outrage, guilt and sadness might occur to create changes so that such things don't happen again. And yet, in the process of recording something that needs to be known, the photographer is not involving themselves in the rescue of the subject.

While it's understandable that the photographer, like the rescuers, could do nothing about the girl in the second photo, the photographer of the first photo was criticised for not helping the girl by scaring away the vulture and picking her up and taking her to the food camp.

As a budding, amateur photographer myself, and previously a news cameraman (about 15 years ago), I have often thought about my own actions if I was to be around a catastrophic or tragic event and had my camera with me. Would I try to help, or would I stand there and take photos?

My first aid skills are nonexistent – I have no skills whatsoever, apart from common sense, which as I understand it, might not be that helpful either, depending on the nature of a person's injuries. If I'm confronted by an injured person, I know that my assistance is not likely to be of much use. What would I do instead? If I could help, I would, and THEN I would take photos not of the injured, but of what injured them. If I couldn't help them, however, or other people were helping, then I would stand back and take photos.

If I was in the situation of the first photo above, I don't think I'd be spending 20 minutes watching the girl weakly crawling to the food camp. I would take the photo and then take her to the camp myself. I think the same result could have been achieved without waiting 20 minutes for the 'perfect vulture shot'. I suspect the photographer may have committed suicide not just because of his depression about inhumanity, life, and twisted perceptions, but also of his own guilt at not doing anything himself. After taking the photo he left, and no one knows if she was eaten by the vulture or if she got to the food camp. He didn't know, and I could imagine the guilt that would affect him.

If I was in the situation of photo 2, I would have done the same. When there's nothing you can do to help someone, what else can you do except take a photo? At least there is a legacy of their existence in that case, and the photo drew the world's attention to the fact that the government of that country didn't provide the resources to help, which it could have done but chose not to.

Taking a photo can change the world, and change things for the better. One person's tragedy is another person's catalyst for change.

The dilemma of the photographer – and of myself – is, what would you do in a situation where you can help or take a photo? What would the taking of the photo mean? How much help could you provide?

In my exploration of the stories behind the photographers and the photos, I found that the photographer who had taken the first photo had also been in an area of a gunfight between some rebels and police, and while he hadn't captured on film the murder of a rebel by a policeman, other photographers did. He was angry that he was reloading his camera when the event occurred, but also depressed that he had witnessed a murder and was unable to do anything about it.

If I was witness to a police action – or any violent action – I would do what I could to take the photos. When there's violence, I know that my own involvement would be detrimental to my personal wellbeing, and I'd do what I could to avoid it. But at the same time, I'd do what I could to record it.

Ultimately, my philosophy is that if there's something you can do to help someone, then you should. If you can't, then you shouldn't. And if you can't, you shouldn't hit yourself up with guilt trips about it, because it's out of your hands. It's the same as feeling intensely guilty about murders that are happening on the other side of the world, that you don't see, don't know about, and can't change. If you have no control in the matter, then there should be no guilt or self-retribution.

You might not be able to change something by your direct involvement, but by taking photos of it, you just might be able to help prevent it happening again, or even changing the results of something for the better.

I understand it's not easy being a photographer who is passionate about capturing a moment for the viewing by other people. The backlash of an unknowing and overly sympathetic audience can be disheartening. But I wouldn't let that stop me from taking the photos.

Each situation is different, but as long as I am unable to help the subject of my photos, I would have no qualms about taking photos of them in their final or tragic moments. Someone has to record it, as a legacy to those involved, and as an eye-opener to those who weren't.

Thanks for reading! Please add your own thoughts below.

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