Monday, 2 June 2008

Am I going too far?

Today I went a bit further afield on my lunchtime walk and had to catch the bus back to the office from Farringdon. But thats not what the topic is about. While I was sitting on the top deck, watching the street, I saw an old man running up the road. He was wearing a cowboy hat and a dark jacket with a purple flower in the lapel. Just as he was crossing a cobbled side street, he just keeled over and fell flat to the ground. He lifted his head briefly and then lay back down and didn't move again. He lay there completely lifeless and after a moment, people noticed him started to point and move towards him. The bus moved on and I lost sight of him.

The whole thing lasted a few seconds, but I've had to spend much more time thinking about my responses to it. A whole seres of jumbled thoughts came into my head, but foremost of these was a strong urge to pull out my camera and take pictures of the scene. My brain was putting together a composition in my head, I was pre-visulaising how I wanted the image to look. The man lying on the cobbles, with his wethered hands in front of him, the elevation of the bus almost making it seem like you were viewing yourself in an out of body experience. Would it look better in colour or black and white?

At the same time my thoughts were telling me that someone had fallen, they might be hurt, they might be dying, they might already be dead. I had a competing urge to get off the bus and see if I can help, which I immediately discounted because there was nothing I could do to help, I don't know first aid and there were already people on the ground. Another impulse resisting the urge to take a photograph was that it was morbid, that you couldn't reduce someone's life to an attractive composition or a cool black and white photo. Is it right to try and create something beautiful out of something tragic? On the other hand would the image be useful to the police? Unlikely.

It all sounds a bit callous, but in a way its something I've been training myself to do every since I witnessed a brawl that led to a murder. Since it happened I have tried to make sure that I always have a camera with me, so that I can be a better witness if I was ever put in the same situation again. The other side of the coin is that I have been training myself to see the composition and the light, which I why I started to think that way too. Being a good witness in this case wouldn't have helped anyone, or brought anyone to justice, but the instincts were still there.

I didn't take the shot. Could I have been proud of it if I had taken it? I don't know. In "On Photography" by Susan Sontag, I felt that she villifies photography, she uses some harsh language to describe it, words like theft and rape. She criticises the way that some photographers try to show beauty in terrible things, and today I felt that she was speaking to me. Having said that, there are photojournalists around the world who have to make the choice every day.

If you have had to make the same choices I'd like to hear from you. Leave me a comment or send me and email or flickr mail if you want to comment confidentially


  1. For me it would depend on the motive for the shot. Is it to show humanity at its weakest (the sick man) or at its strongest (the people helping)? If you're showing the story and not glorifying the misery I don't think there would be a problem with it.

    Getting off the bus to take the picture may have been a little extreme in this case, but it's not a decision I'd like ot make myself.

  2. I try really hard not to judge others for their thoughts or actions. I may try to avoid those who have extreme positions from mine, at least where moral issues are important.

    For me there is no right or wrong to taking the photograph, unless in my opinion your action of taking the photograph vs helping an individual, without jeopardizing your health, would cause harm or more harm to the person. But that is just my thinking.

    My own views on this type of photography are that unless my image would ultimately help then I would not take. By this I mean if you were to show a fallen individual and all sorts of people were just standing around an not helping and you could make this obvious, then there would be merit in pointing out the failings of human kind. At lot like the photograph of the falling dead Spanish soldier, which for me shows the real horror or war.

    I like to show people in their best light and that is why I never make it as a photojournalist as I could not detach myself form the events as I have a habit, which I think is a good one, of always rushing to help those in distress.

    Photography and art is fun but life is about people.

    Niels Henriksen

  3. I live with this all the time in my job do you go in or do you hang out.

    You sometimes have to be seperate from the scene. I have stepped in before.

    I will not step in. But being a combat photographer rushing in will 9 times out of 10 will get you killed.

    My close friend took film footage of a soldier being evacuated from a battlefield. He never showed it to anyone as the lad had died. However after the funeral the commanding officer showed it to the family. The family were upset but also settled byt the fact that there son was with good friends who battled through overwhelming odds to try and save his life.

    They knew there and then that there son had not died alone and was with friends who cared for him. It will not bring him back. It proved to them that he had not died alone and in pain on the battlefield.