Skip to main content

Should photographers help or shoot?

By J. Ross Baughman, Special to CNN
updated 10:41 AM EST, Fri December 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photographer took picture of man in path of subway; public outcry ensued
  • J. Ross Baughman says a photojournalist's job is to witness
  • He says if role is to record bad things in world, one can't fix them before they happen
  • Writer witnessed brutal torture in Rhodesia; in doing so, he revealed government lies

Editor's note: J. Ross Baughman won a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 1978 for his coverage of the guerrilla war in southern Africa. He has taught courses on ethics at The New School, the University of Missouri Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia and Dartmouth. In 2003, he helped draft the latest revision of the ethics code for the National Press Photographers Association.

(CNN) -- Responsibilities come along with a camera: when to use it or when to set it aside. Our human nature is to gawk, and the camera often creates a layer of added unreality, shielding at least our full attention from all that is in front of us.

A freelance photographer for The New York Post recently took a heart-stopping photo of a subway train bearing down on a man who had fallen on the tracks. Instead of trying to pull the man to safety, the photographer took photos. One landed on the cover the The Post. The public outcry -- against the photographer, the paper and the bystanders who also did nothing to save the man -- was swift and severe.

J. Ross Baughman
J. Ross Baughman

Back in the day when mobile phones did not come with a built-in camera, uproars made us duck and cringe. You'd suck in your breath and hope that trouble might sweep by without touching. Nowadays, if you are an ordinary citizen or even a special officer who is off duty, I hope you will find a quick, compassionate, humane response to everything in life.

My purpose here is not to address the issue of journalists who are merely on duty, looking for spot news or prowling for features. My argument is not about instinct and reflex, which probably gripped the subway photographer, R. Umar Abbasi.

He told reporters he "had no idea" what he was shooting. "I'm not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I just started running. I had my camera up -- it wasn't even set to the right settings -- and I just kept shooting and flashing, hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop."

Opinion: Why the outrage over photo in subway death?

Whatever Abbasi's motives may have been or still be, it is the habit of many photojournalists to shoot a lot and to keep shooting at all costs, especially in the heat of a dramatic moment. It's the reality of the job.

In the movies, every photojournalist starts off as an aloof, confused, emotionally stunted voyeur. Think of Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," Dennis Hopper in "Apocalypse Now" or the photographers portrayed in "Blood Diamond," "Delirious" and "City of God." Screenwriters always demand that they lay their cameras down and, only in that way, attain clarity, take action and remake events for the sake of a noble, happy ending. Bearing witness is never enough, in this characterization.

It's a popular conclusion, seemingly the only one that we are fed, but it is not in the best interests of society. Indeed, the National Press Photographers Association feels so conflicted about our role that it now goes beyond giving out awards simply for the best pictures of the year. It now has another plaque for the photojournalist who stops taking pictures, choosing instead to save a stranger's life or limb.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I've been an investigative journalist and photographer for over 40 years, half of that in the field and half of it on the assignment desk. I am frequently called upon to judge the work of my peers.

The journalist's job is to be invisible and, in that way, to see on behalf of everyone else. We perform our most vital role when the stakes are high, even to the level of life and death. Our duty is to test the tough question, the one at the very heart of a given story, the one immediately at hand.

Say a photojournalist and an editor want to do a story about medicine and public policy. They might reflect on a couple of these questions and attempt to show them in a journalistic investigation: How often do schizophrenic patients stop taking their meds, becoming a danger to themselves and others? Does trouble sometimes show up like clockwork and for the same combination of reasons? Might a schizophrenic patient with a history of violence pick fights and hurt people? Is it time for an intervention?

Photo of subway death sparks outcry
Photographer: I couldn't rescue him

Nothing could be more compelling for the public and policymakers to examine, and photographs could be the best way to illuminate the problem. If the system needs fixing and our role as journalists is to witness things when they break down, we can't go around preventing or fixing the breakdowns before they even happen. We have to simply watch and wait and see how bad things get. We must see for ourselves.

Stories of this quality are not psychologically easy for the journalist to undertake, or for the public to digest. They must be presented in a dignified manner, with the fullest possible context. If editors try to be quick and lurid in their display, both subjects and audience will only feel insulted.

Back in 1977, in Rhodesia, I watched the brutal interrogation and torture of a man over a three-day period. The officer in charge later learned that the prisoner had died as a result. Up until that point, the government and the army had insisted that there was nothing to the rumors of such treatment, that if there were problems, they weren't significant. Only by waiting and watching patiently, I found out that there was more to the story. Much more.

In 2005, I sat on a panel at Columbia University that reviewed the best journalism of the year. One unforgettable news photograph -- out of a portfolio of 20 -- showed Iraqi insurgents pulling a man out of a car in midday traffic and shooting him in the head. When we awarded that eyewitness account with a Pulitzer Prize, a chorus of criticism was heaped on the decision. The photo was too disturbing, so they said. How did the photographer just happen to be there? Couldn't he have stopped it? Wasn't he just as bad as the bad guys?

No. He was doing his job. He was performing one of the most crushing duties that society can assign, all in the name of today's honesty, tomorrow's decisions about it and history's fullest account.

Entering this profession is not easy, and not everyone has the internal strength for it.

But we dare not turn a blind eye. Someone's got to do it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of J. Ross Baughman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT