One of the most basic dilemmas that photojournalists ever face is the conflict between making photographs and putting the camera down to help people in need. This is one person’s opinion.

This column appeared in News Photographer Magazine in February 2010.

Do I put the camera down, or do I remain an observer?

By John Long

“Years ago, Martin Luther King gave similar advice to a photographer from Life magazine. When sheriff’s deputies were shoving children to the ground during a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, the photographer stopped taking pictures and went to the aid of the children. King heard about the incident and reminded him: ‘The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it. I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray.’”- Ron F. Smith, Ethics in Journalism

 In one minute or so, more than 100,000 people died. Thousands more were injured and countless buildings collapsed. Haiti was a disaster. It was absolutely imperative that photojournalists cover the death and destruction so that the world could see and respond.

 And yet, the number of injuries was so pervasive, almost anyone present as journalist was probably called on to render aid. This is a basic ethical conflict faced by journalists: Do I put the camera down and help or do I remain the objective observer? This is a conflict faced by visual journalists during Katrina, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in the wake of the tsunami. It is the dilemma faced by Kevin Carter when he photographed a starving child in Africa.

 Watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN seemed to encapsulate the issue: He is a trained brain surgeon and though he was in Haiti as a representative of CNN to report on the situation, when the need arose, he practiced medicine. What we can take from his response is what seems to be the response all journalists should practice: balance. You shoot and if need be, you also render aid.

 The National Press Photographers Association has its Humanitarian Award intended to support this concept of putting down the camera in order to help victims. And yet NPPA has a much more extensive set of awards for those who photograph these tragedies, and rightly so. This is what we do. This is our purpose: to witness life and share our vision as objectively as possible with the world. It is our calling and our life.

I have said in my speeches for the last 20 years that one of the guiding principles of how I chose to live is this: If I have placed myself in a position where I can help, I feel I am morally obligated to help. I am a human being first and a journalist second. I have to be able to sleep at night. Not everyone agrees with me, but so be it.

I am a professional witness. I go to fires and accidents, and wars and earthquakes and hurricanes, to record what is taking place so accurate information can be shared with my fellow citizens. We cannot make rational choices for our society unless we have accurate information on which to base our choices. It is important work, and yet there are times I have felt like a vulture, benefiting from the suffering of others; I have won my share of spot news awards and I have felt the conflict. But I am a photojournalist, not a minister or a doctor.

There are some cultures where people do not want their photographs made because they feel the photographer is stealing their souls. I have never felt as though I was stealing a soul but I have felt that I have incurred some obligation to the subjects of my photography – that by intruding on someone’s existence, I now have created some sort of obligation. Some price needs to be paid. The cost for making a photograph of someone in trouble or pain is my commitment to be honest in my portrayal of this person. I owe my subject my honesty. If we single out one human being to be photographed, we owe something back to this individual.

Photographs do not show trends, they show individuals. They are here, they are now; they show one victim, one moment. Reporters tell us that more than 100,000 people died. The photojournalist shows us one person who died. Reporters tell us millions of people are in pain. Photojournalists show us one person in pain. It is the singleness of our work that emotionally affects our viewers and at the same time causes these same viewers to call us vultures.

Kevin Carter lived this conflict. His photograph of a dying child won the Pulitzer Prize while at the same time he was vilified for not helping the child. Soon after receiving his Pulitzer, and suffering from depression, he committed suicide.

The answer seems to date back the Greek philosophers: moderation in all things. Understand your priorities, your values. If I have placed my self in a situation where I can help, I feel morally obligated to help. And yet there is great value in my documentation. I must photograph. I will make photographs until I am the only one who can provide aid. Then my humanity must take precedence. It is a matter of values: Every photographer has to find their own set of values. In my life my family comes first, my church second, and my profession third.

You shoot, and then you help. It is not a choice; it is a balance.

Retired from more than three decades at The Hartford Courant, Long is chairperson of NPPA’s Ethics & Standards Committee and author of NPPA’s DVD “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography.” Write to him at [email protected]