“There are no universal rules. You have to take a call depending on the situation at a particular time,” says a photojournalist working with a leading news agency,” while talking of how one balances one’s professional duties with basic human emotions. It is not easy. Not when one is under pressure to capture and file that defining image from a conflict area or disaster zone. “As a photojournalist your duty is to record the events,” he says. But he himself has on occasions put away the camera to perform a greater duty – that of helping a fellow human being in distress.
As an Associated Press photojournalist, Dar Yasin did last week, when he handed over his camera to another photographer to help a student injured in a protest in Kashmir. Yasin’s action is being hailed as immensely humanitarian and socially responsible, both by other photojournalists, as well as the common people of Kashmir. Often though the situation is very different, and photojournalists have had to bear the brunt of criticism for performing their job at the cost of their moral and social responsibilities.
In 1993, Kevin Carter photographed a malnourished toddler during the Sudan famine. The child had stopped to rest while crawling towards some food. Close behind the toddler waited a vulture. Though the image came to symbolise the suffering of the people in Sudan during the famine, helped raise funds for sufferers and won a Pulitzer, many expressed concern over the fate of the child and criticised Carter for not helping him. Some termed Carter “another predator”.
Photographers insist that there can be no single binding rule on how to behave in such situations. “If someone is dying and I am the only one there to help, if there is no one else around, I will take a quick photo of the situation and then try to help the person. But if there are others to help, my responsibility would be to capture the intensity of the moment,” says Raghu Rai who has photographed the war for Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 and conflicts in Kashmir.
The photographer agrees. “I was in Kabul in 2009. There had been an attack on a United Nations campus and I was the first photojournalist to reach. Two cops were telling a staff member to jump down from the building, but the man knew that just the two of them wouldn’t be able to catch him, and he was reluctant. I joined the cops in getting the man down to safety,” he remembers. But he explains that it is not always possible for the photojournalist to get involved. “If there is a clash between two groups, my involvement to protect one or the other, can be construed as my bias in favour of or against them,” he says.
These situations, feels photographer Prashant Panjiar, is not outside the domain of normal. And so a photojournalist would often behave as any other in that situation. “If you saw a girl being teased by a few men on a street, would you help her or wait for the police to come. It is the same for a photojournalist in a conflict or disaster zone. You do what is right at the moment,” he says.
To show or not to show
There are other considerations. In a life and death situation, it is not only the photojournalist’s role in assisting victims that is under scrutiny, but his ethics, sensitivity and aesthetics as reflected in the photograph that he captures. A 1976 photograph which received the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, showed a 19-year-old and her two-year-old niece falling from the collapsed fire escape of a burning apartment building on Marlborough Street in Boston. The photo made officials in Boston change the fire escape safety laws. But the photographer was charged with invading the privacy of the victim and indulging in sensationalisation.
In a similar incident, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, German photographer Thomas Hoepker, photographed a group of seemingly relaxed Americans with the burning twin towers in the background. The photograph that was published in 2006, made the subjects seem untouched by the tragedy. A man, who later identified himself as a member of the group, clarified that everyone in the picture were actually “in a profound state of shock and disbelief” and that the picture had been taken without permission. In another 9/11 photograph titled “The Falling Man”, a man is photographed in what has been described as a ‘calm’ moment whilst falling from the tower. Many viewers find the photograph extremely disturbing.
Rai agrees that one can convey the enormity of a tragedy without showing extremely disturbing images. “When I started photographing Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, Mother called me one day and told me that I have to respect the dignity of those living at the homes. Those words have stayed with me”. He gives an example of how he works in such situations. “During the Bangladesh war of 1971, Pakistani forces had killed some intellectuals and professors of Dhaka University. I took a long shot of the bodies floating in the tank with showing any close-ups of faces or other body parts,” he says.
The aim, says Panjiar, should again be to do the right thing. “Sometimes if there is violence between two groups, some person will increase that violence if they see a photographer. They will perform to the camera. Again a photographer has to decide whether it will be right to capture that.”
The pressure to break news and present never-before-seen images might make one forget ethics for a moment. “But it is the responsibility of the editor and photographer to sit and decide what one is conveying before finally presenting that image before the public,” says Rai. This is especially needed, says the agency photojournalist, in the time of social media excesses. “Ethics and responsible coverage should be what sets a professional apart from social media amateurs,” he insists.