Is the picture more important than the person?

by M.McGirr on January 30, 2014 - 1:25pm

What if shooting someone could save their life? This belief is what gives war photographers peace of mind. War photographers go into countries on behalf of news agencies and magazines with directives to expose the truth to the western world. The more shocking an image, the better. Often this means photographs of emancipated Africans that look like skeletons, mounds of corpses, live executions and extreme police brutality that shock people into action, and horrible memories that leave photographers asking themselves if it’s all worth it. As a photography student interested in photojournalism, I know this is a very real issue. As a viewer I wonder how someone could take a picture with such disturbing content and not do anything. Should war photographers physically help the people who are victims of war, or should they remain neutral observers?

War photographers are already at a high risk of being shot or injured; by helping someone they draw attention to themselves, possibly enrage the attackers and dramatically increase the photographers’ risk of injury or death. The first rule of CPR is to help someone only if it doesn’t endanger yourself because you’re no help to them dead. Even if a photographer was willing to increase their risk of personal injury to save someone, there are reasons to be neutral in order to save not just one life, but thousands more. Photographing someone’s misery can make for an image that will have a monumental impact in shocking the public into rioting and government officials into stopping a war. That image could raise public awareness and can also lead to an increase in charitable donations that will do much more to benefit the victims of a war-torn country than a single person ever could. By photographing an execution in the Vietnam war or a scrawny, starving African in a food-relief camp, the photographer is giving a voice to an otherwise silent suffering. They’re making a difference in an unexpected way, for the greater good.

It’s tempting to say that a human life is sacred and that we have a responsibility to help anyone in need, and that therefore photographers, as a human being, should help his fellow man above all else. It’s a simple, straight forward argument, but the world is rarely so black and white, everything is a thousand shades of grey.

My question to you readers is this: How do you react to photographs of human or animal suffering?