Photogs Chime in on Snapping Photos of Tragedy When They Could Have Helped

The Guardian featured a gripping article yesterday that asked photographers to look back at some of their most powerful photos, and how they could have helped instead of standing by and taking pictures. On the one hand we’ve all felt that surge of indignation as we wonder “why didn’t they help!?” On the other, only a photographer that has been there could understand what it’s like to be under that kind of pressure:

It was my first time in a conflict situation, and I was quite unprepared. I was on my own inside a migrant worker’s hostel in South Africa. Suddenly all the men started picking up spears and sticks and clubs, and racing off. So I followed them. They were trying to get into one of the dormitory rooms, and there was someone inside pressing against the door. Eventually, the door was flung open and this guy with a scarf tied like a turban around his head came dashing out. He looked me straight in the eyes, and then took off.

All these other men started chasing him, and he hadn’t gone far when he was brought down. About 15 or 20 men were all around him, hitting and stabbing and clubbing. And I was right there, photographing it. On the one hand, I was horrified, and at the same time I was thinking: what should the exposure be?


It was my first exposure to such a thing. And although, as a journalist, my reaction was fine, as a human being I felt I’d really let myself down. It wasn’t how I’d expected I’d react – I thought I’d try to intervene, or do something more noble. Yet I hadn’t. I was really quite torn up about that. I was gutted that I’d been such a coward

The article follows this and several other riveting stories that pit photojournalistic ambitions and self-preservation against humanity and the desire to “do the right thing.” Ultimately, however, the stories all beg the same question: What would you do?

‘I was gutted that I’d been such a coward': photographers who didn’t step in to help (via Reddit)

Image credit: War Zone معركة العباسية by Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي

  • MikeAlgar42

    Worth debating, is taking the photo a statement of help within itself? It is a record of a moment that should not have happened, people are swayed to act when they see such a thing.

  • Roman Mestas

    There are so many things that factor into a scenario like this.. You kind of have to weigh out all of these factors within a matter of seconds, Is this a life or death situation for the subject? Is this a life or death situation for me? Is the importance of others seeing this taking place more important than the safety of the subject? These are all very tough questions to answer especially in a matter of seconds.. In a situation like this I could not even speculate what I would do, I would have to actually be in the scenario and react to it to find out.

  • harumph

    The scenario excerpted here actually has a third option too: Don’t get yourself killed trying to save the guy, but don’t take any pictures of him getting killed either.

  • Andersen

    Very, very, very hard question and imho impossible to “debate” without actually having experienced it once. But yeah, I’d say, taking the photograph and documenting atrocities to maybe later “proof” something or remind people about it, to never let it happen again, etc. is actually help in itself.

  • Azeem Lalani

    Really very hard question.
    well I’m more confused on it now.

  • Gavin Stokes

    Judging by some of the repsones to past debates about photos in public situtations all photographers should be banned from taking photos like this.

  • bob cooley

    As a journalist, your primary responsibility is to get the shot, and to make sure it can be seen by others. Part of that means making sure you aren’t killed yourself.

    It’s a tough ethical situation to be in; and every crisis situation is different with its own set of choices and possibilities – and the situation often dictates what flexibility the photographer has within whatever event is unfolding.

    I’ve read accounts, and been in situations as a photojournalist where it was appropriate to get the shot and then to help.

    I remember a story about a photojournalist during the Flight 90 crash in Washington DC who got shots when he arrived at the scene, knew that he had something solid that told the story, then assisted in the rescue effort (the name of the shooter escapes me).

    I read many accounts of journalists in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina who got their shots, then helped those trapped in the floods.

    Part of being a professional is using good judgement both as a journalist and as a human being. But also about determining the most reasonable overall outcome.

    I don’t think anyone can fault journalists for not intervening where it would have put their own lives in jeopardy. In many cases their lives may already be in danger just for being there – they are in those situations to collect the story, not to lose their lives, and fail at getting the story told.