Photo Essay Of Boston Bombing Suspect Was Shot By Former BU Student

Johannes Hirn
Johannes Hirn

By Donald R. Winslow

BOSTON, MA (April 19, 2013) – A picture story shot by Boston University student Johannes Hirn of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was done as a final project for BU photojournalism professor Peter Southwick's class, the teacher told News Photographer magazine today. 

The essay "Will Box For Passport" had as its subject the 26-year-old man who has become known as "Suspect #1" or the "Black Hat" bomber at the Boston Marathon tragedy, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In the captions for the essay Tsarnaev says, "I don't have a single American friend."

"Johannes called me this morning from England to ask me for advice about what to do with his pictures," Southwick told News Photographer magazine. "I was foggy headed and didn't yet have an idea of the overnight shootings and what had been going. But I had a conversation with him about what he has [in the photos] and the firestorm that was likely to start."

Southwick said his former student asked him whether or not he should take the photos of the Marathon bomber down off his PhotoShelter Web site before the images got downloaded or stolen and used without his permission. But by the time he raised that question, the images were already appearing on several blogs and Web sites. "That horse was already out of the barn," Southwick said. 

The professor says he told his former student that the fastest way to deal with his pictures might be to call AP or Reuters and let them handle distribution, or the alternative was to try to deal one-on-one with every publication that calls and negotiate each individual agreement. 

"There were no images inappropriately downloaded from his PhotoShelter site without permission," PhotoShelter CEO Andrew Fingerman wrote to News Photographer in the aftermath. "All of the images appearing on blogs and the media were screenshots of his site ... the security of PhotoShelter's download access was not breached."

Fingerman said several Web sites, large famous ones as well as personal blogs, made screenshots of Hirn's site and used the images without permission that way. "The harsh reality is that we can prevent downloads of the originals and hi-res images, but anything on the Web is at risk of theft by way of screenshot. The only safeguard against screenshots is watermarks."

There's a lesson to be learned by photographers by what happened with Hirn's images, Fingerman said. "When the images were uncovered in social media, legitimate media sources were instantly trying to reach Johannes to license the images. He didn't provide direct contact information on this Web site, he didn't have an 'About Me' page or any social media links to help interested clients find him. The media turned to PhotoShelter as well, and we had an equally hard time reaching him until later in the day." By that time, Hirn had already taken the gallery down.

In the end, Hirn licensed his images to a little-known agency in the U.K. When Fingerman reached him, the PhotoShelter CEO said the photographer wished, in hindsight, that he had used watermarks on his photographs as well as the PhotoShelter Web site's built-in capability to license images. But he didn't, and his contact information wasn't part of his gallery, so some high-value images missed the opportunity for immediate sale and got grabbed by some unscrupulous publishers.

Southwick said his former student was not a photography major, but was in the science journalism program for graduate students at BU. In that program, BU professor Doug Starr was Hirn's closest teacher for about a year and a half, beginning around 2010. 

"He is a brilliant man," Starr said today. "He had a PhD in particle physics before he came here. He's a gifted man." Starr is the co-director of the graduate program where Hirn studied.

Hirn today is a Dunlap Fellow in Outreach and Communications at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. He worked as a freelance science writer in Switzerland in 2012, and from 2007 to 2010 wrote freelance for several magazines and web sites. He was a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University from 2006 to 2008.