Subway photos: The journalist’s dilemma

By Christopher B. Daly

Anyone who has ever ridden the NYC subways has probably thought about it as you stand on the platform waiting for a train. What if some crazy bastard snuck up behind me and pushed me onto the tracks? Could I get back up? Would anyone help me?

Or, perhaps a variation on the theme: What if I see someone else pushed? Will I have the courage to jump down there and help?

The recent tragedy in New York City pushes all these thoughts (and more) into focus. These issues often rise to the forefront when journalists are on-scene. It seems that photojournalists, in particular, are often thrust into these situations, because photographers are so often at or near the scene of terrible things.

This is an issue that I took up in my recent book, Covering America.(pgs 329-330)

Here’s an excerpt that was prompted by the famous photo from the American war in Vietnam that showed a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in protest. (More thoughts after the excerpt)

. . . On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monks of Vietnam took center stage. For weeks as the crisis built, the AP’s Mal Browne had been filing stories, and he had spent a lot of time in pagodas, interviewing monks and getting a good understanding of  their cause. On the night of June 10 Browne got a call from a contact among the monks, telling him there would be an important development the next morning at a small Saigon pagoda. Several Western correspondents got the same tip, but only a few showed up, including Browne and, later, [David] Halberstam. Only Browne, under the AP photo policy, was carrying a camera. After a while, a 73-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to a busy Saigon intersection and sat down in the lotus position, ringed by hundreds of other monks. Several monks doused him with gasoline, then he struck a match (fig. 11.2). As the flames rose, the monk never flinched. Browne kept working. “Numb with shock,” Browne later recalled, “I shot roll after roll of film, focusing and adjusting exposures mechanically and unconsciously, almost as an athlete chews gum to relieve stress. Trying hard not to perceive what I was witnessing I found myself thinking: ‘The sun is bright and the subject is self-illuminated, so f16 at 125th of a second should be right.’ But I couldn’t close out the smell.” Browne probably could not have intervened once the match was lit, even if he had been prepared. The hundreds of monks would have stopped him.

Malcolm Browne / AP

Malcolm Browne / AP

This incident, like much else that correspondents saw in Vietnam, dramatizes a problem that might be called the Journalist’s Dilemma. For obvious reasons, journalists often witness tragedies and catastrophes. In the course of reporting or shooting photos, they are sometimes confronted by an apparent conflict between continuing to work or stopping to render assistance. Should the journalist step out of the traditional role of observing news and try to help? If the journalist intervenes to prevent a tragedy or to offer aid and comfort to victims, does he or she thus enter the story as a historical actor and give up any claim to practicing journalism (and along with it, perhaps, any First Amendment rights)? Close examination of many cases reveals that the Journalist’s Dilemma is often an illusion. In most instances, the action unfolds so quickly that there is no time for decision making, while in others, the journalist is in fact able to observe the news, record it, and still rise to at least a basic level of humanitarian action. Still, it is in the nature of a dilemma to have no ultimate solution. . .

Like soldiers, cops, EMTs, firefighters and other “first responders,” news reporters and photojournalists often find themselves running toward trouble rather than away from it. As a result, they are often present when bad things happen. This, of course, does not mean that they caused the bad thing, just that they were in the vicinity. Throughout the history of journalism, going at least as far back as Samuel Wilkeson of the New York Times covering the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and finding the body of his own son among the Union dead, the issue has come up again and again. Here are some notable cases:

Kevin Carter 1993

Kevin Carter 1993

–There is the story of photographer Kevin Carter, who took a heart-stopping photo of a starving child apparently being stalked by a waiting vulture. That photo, taken in Sudan in 1993, earned him both praise and condemnation. After the photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, Carter took his own life. Here is his NYT obit (written by South Africa correspondent Bill Keller). Few people realize that Carter helped save the girl’s life. His story was later the focus of a film, called “The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club.” (Made in 2006 at the Cal-Berkeley School of Journalism.)

–There is the longer version of Mal Browne’s photo of the burning monk. Browne also describes the incident in a segment of a terrific historical PBS video called “Reporting America at War.”

KIM PHUC VIETNAM –There is the story behind another famous Vietnam war photo — the “napalm girl” photo of 1972, taken by photojournalist Nick Ut, a Vietnamese native who was working for the AP at the time. As with Kevin Carter, few people who saw this photo ever learned that Ut put his camera down and render aid that probably saved the girl’s life. Here is a version told in part by the AP photo chief in Saigon during the war, the prize-winning photojournalist Horst Faas. The girl, Kim Phuc, survived and moved to Canada. Here is more about her. She was also the subject of a 1999 biography by Denise Chong called The Girl in the Picture. Photographer and subject also met several times.

–More recently, NYTimes photojournalist Tyler Hicks has found himself in the thick of things all throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the countries of the Arab Spring. Hicks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was captured in Libya in March 2011. Later, he was with his colleague Anthony Shadid when Shadid died from a severe asthma attack that came on while the two journalists were entering forbidden territory in Syria. Hicks carried his buddy’s body across the border into Turkey. images

–Finally, there is the incomparable James Nachtwey, who has been thinking about these things for a long time. Here are some of his thoughts in a TED talk.

 

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