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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT