Photojournalism: Where is the line drawn between truth and exploitation?

SHOOTINGmom_D0mJzI have had this question on my mind for quite some time. Recently, an elementary school was invaded by a gunman who killed eighteen little kids. If you have not read the story, please read here. The photos that accompanied these stories through various media outlets were disturbing and notably one featured surviving children clinging to each other, crying and scared. When I saw this photo, my eyes filled up and I felt so angry that someone could do this to so many young, innocent lives. Angry at the gunman, NOT the photojournalist who took these photos.

I read up on people’s opinions on NBC Connecticut’s Facebook page and one woman’s response, among many just like it on various social media platforms, was

“SHAME ON THE NEWS MEDIA for exploiting pictures of these children as they flee for their lives. They are elementary school children. Their horrified faces should not be posted on the internet or in new media. SHAME ON THE STAFF OF THE NEWTOWN BEE. Obviously they don’t have children, or they would never have been able to post photos of BABIES fleeing a madmen. Prayers to Newton.”

My opinion, and yes it may be biased since I am a journalist, is that we NEED to see these photos. It’s the job of the journalist to document and report these things and it’s never easy. I have yet to experience something as brutal as this event but I have had to photograph some pretty heavy stuff and it’s not easy keeping your composure, especially if you are a highly empathetic person.  Posting photos of crying children isn’t shameful, its the truth. The public tends to shy away from serious issues, “if they can’t see it, then it isn’t there” type of mentality needs to stop. People need to see what is happening in our country. Maybe these images, as awful as they are, will spark changes in our school systems and get our schools higher security that they so obviously need. It’s not exploitation when people NEED to know about what is happening.

I think that people are afraid of seeing the reality of our world, and I don’t blame them,  it’s a scary place. Tragic events like these happen all of the time and we cannot turn a blind eye to it any longer. No one likes to see these types of images, especially being bombarded with them but documenting what happens is the job of the news, both happy events AND tragic ones.article-2243854-165A0C79000005DC-217_306x330

Another such incident that sparked media controversy was R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer for the tabloid New York Post, who photographed a man desperately trying to get out of the way of a speeding subway train after being pushed by another rider. Abbasi rapidly shot dozens of frames so that his flash might alert the motorman and said that he himself “was too far away to help.” Abbasi has been under constant criticism by the public being called, “cold-hearted”, “inhuman” and “disgusting”. Now, I don’t actually know what Abbasi’s intentions are; if he was truly too far away or if he intended to exploit the situation to begin with. No one knows. I do think there are ways to present photos as gruesome as this one to the public and the New York Post’s way of presenting was exploitative, untactful and extremely insensitive to the victim’s family. The point is, instead of pointing fingers are the messenger, should we be asking ourselves the question, “Why didn’t ANYONE stop to help this man?” Photos don’t develop with words because they are supposed to make us ask ourselves questions and to see more than what is just within our own eyes.

Another photographer was also taking the heat for a tragic photograph. Many years ago, Kevin Carter, the man who photographed the starving child being stalked by a vulture, came under almost constant criticism after the photo first appeared on the cover of The New York Times in 1993. Carter had never been around a famine situation nor knew the severity of it until he saw it with his own eyes. The little girl’s family in the photo has only briefly left her alone in order to collect supplies from a relief plane. Carter took the solitary opportunity to snap a few photographs before chasing away the vulture.

CThe St. Petersburg Times in Florida said this of Carter: “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.”
Carter committed suicide at the age of 33 the year following the release of the photograph. His suicide note read “I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”

The whole point of this post was that we too often spend time pointing fingers at who is to blame instead of solving the problem that the photograph is so clearly showing us. Journalists often come under heavy criticism for being the bearers of bad news, especially photojournalists. If we take a photo that is shocking or horrific, it evolves into a reflection of the type of person they are. It’s not. The ability to take a photo with such power is not an easy feat and is damaging to the psyche of the journalist. Truth is important to us, and that’s why we do what we do. People should stop and think about who and what they are blaming the problems on.

What are YOUR thoughts? Do you think that some images can be too exploitative to show to the world or do we need to see the truth of what is happening, no matter how horrible?

4 thoughts on “Photojournalism: Where is the line drawn between truth and exploitation?

  1. Kaitlin,

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I think that the photos make a story seem much more real to the rest of the world, and I think the American people should see these images to remind them what is going on in other parts of the country. (perhaps I am biased as well)
    Regardless, my thoughts and prayers are with the 18 young innocent kids who perished today in Connecticut.

    I’m not sure if you came across this yet–I thought President Obama did a great job during his press briefing:

  2. I think we need the photos to a certain degree. Do we need pictures of a decapitated girl that dies from texting…no…a shot of the car crushed beyond recognition would suffice. I think there is a fine line between respecting families and the horror they suffer and their right not to have the dead bodies of their loved ones plastered all over the media. I believe it is the responsibility of every media person to make that judgement call and while we need to see how scarey this world can be we need also to not lose our sense of what it is to be a caring, empathetic human being. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

    • When I was in high school, they took us to the auditorium before prom and showed us a slideshow of decapitated teenagers, crushed cars, teens burned beyond recognition, etc to show us what drunk driving can do. The images were really graphic and you know what? I didn’t get in the car with anyone who had been drinking that night because I kept thinking about those images. Gruesome, but they worked. As for respecting the families, I think it should be left up to them whether or not the photos should be shared. I think it would surprise us how many would agree if it made people stop and think.

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