Documenting other people’s misery feels awful but it’s necessary to inform the world about what’s happening. How do crisis photographers manage to go through with it? I couldn’t!
Fairly recently, I’ve experienced a large-scale natural disaster firsthand myself. It was by no chance deliberate. Routines ceased to exist; normal life just stopped. There was nothing I could do. I just wanted to get my mind off things. Sitting at home and doing nothing was getting on my nerves, but the roads were blocked, so it wasn’t even possible for me to get to work. I couldn’t do anything! I didn’t know what to do and didn’t know how to help. Simply, I was overwhelmed.
So, I thought I should grab my camera, go for a walk, and document what was happening; somehow — anyhow, I just wanted to get busy so I didn’t have to battle my racing mind at that moment while otherwise completely idle.
This taught me one thing: I could never become a true “crisis photographer”, war correspondent, or the first person taking the newsworthy photograph to be shared around the world when people think back to said event.
Of course, every photographer dreams to have “the opportunity” of having the camera already in hand when something newsworthy, often literally Pulitzer-Prize winning, moments happen. But can we really live, as photographers, go through with taking the picture and the consequences?
For example — to start off with the extremes — the photographer Kevin Carter, who photographed “The Vulture and the Little Girl”, took his own life as he could not deal with the guilt of letting a young child starve to death. Or the photographer Nick Ut, who photographed the “Napalm Girl”, experiencing the horrors of war firsthand, says that this photograph changed his life. But for the better?
[…] That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment thirty years ago will be one Kim Phuc [the “Napalm Girl”] and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives.Nick Ut
Worth a Thousand Words
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and indeed, a good photograph captures emotions to be felt around the world. You emphasize with the subjects, even if you weren’t alive when the photograph was taken. Often times a picture can serve as a grim reminder of past experiences better than a written report ever could.
Is Pointing a Camera at Others Right?
It’s not just that the photographer is exposing themselves to various physical dangers but psychological dangers as well.
You might end up at the frontline in a bloody clash between protesters and police or see disturbing images first and foremost with your own eyes — not necessarily “just” through a camera lens.
Experiences and images you yourself will have to live with.
But it’s not just that. Can you live with the fact that you might be required, as a photographer, to get the photograph and rescue yourself before being able to rescue someone else? Can you live with the fact that you hold your camera in the face of a wounded protester or soldier?
Do you think it’s right to walk around a town wrecked by natural disasters with your camera and take pictures of other people’s misery to share with the world? How would this make you feel? I was in exactly this situation and I certainly could not do it.
You need to have the audacity of going up to people in misery and pointing a camera point-blank at their faces. Clearly, they will notice you and look at you. What do their looks convey? Shame? Fear? Anger? Taking pictures of them without them noticing certainly doesn’t feel fair to them, does it? So, on top of that, you need to have the guts and decency to ask them before publishing their likeness and misery to the world — or you should ask at least, even though just taking a picture without them noticing and running away is probably easier for everyone.
The thing, the problem, is, whether you really want to be the person who’s going up to someone who may have just lost their home or even a loved one, raise your camera to their face, and press the shutter? To capture them at their weakest point in life after they might have just lost everything? Do you really have the guts to do that?
I can speak from my personal experience: I clearly don’t. It’s too invasive for me, too rude, and much uncalled for. Although a lot of people would agree that these photographs will have worth to them.
To them, you’re either a local, know these people and try to help them — without exposing their lowest point in life to the whole world, or you’re a gawking stranger to them who’s just in it for adventure tourism.
What I Did
It’s no secret, I mostly chickened out from helping other strangers in my area because I’m generally inept when it comes to physical labor and was just overwhelmed with everything going on.
As I was heading out in the city — probably sort of dazed, still, with a somehow clear intention of trying to capture what has transpired — I nevertheless stowed my camera in my backpack again pretty fast. Honestly, it was a dreadful view. And every step I got closer to the city center, it got worse. I just didn’t even dare to take my phone out for a good photo.
It just felt wrong to me.
These are the moments where you don’t have to imagine what the other person might be thinking because you yourself are just like them. You wouldn’t want someone to take a picture of your misery, let alone publish it somewhere. So, naturally, you don’t take one either.
Between Invaluable Photographs and Conscience
Admittedly, it’s a thin line to walk on if you want to become a crisis photographer, war correspondent, or pick up a similar profession.
The taken photographs are often invaluable, but taking them in the first place requires you to leave your consciences behind whilst also trying to be as decent and as reserved as possible. To me, this distinction is conflicting — but, and because of this — makes sense. How can you truly capture a candid and true moment while simultaneously treating the photographed person with as much respect as possible? How do you live with the horrors you will see? How can you live with the fact that you have just been a bystander unable to help because you were busy documenting it? Can you even take the picture in the first place?
All I can say: I can’t. Can you?