Faced with the question, keep shooting.

By Steve Raymer

In late December, Getty Images photographer John Moore was only 20 yards away from the armored sport utility vehicle carrying Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto when a suicide bomber set off an explosion that mortally wounded the Harvard and Oxford-educated former prime minister, killing more than 20 people in the military garrison town of Rawalpindi. Moore, a member of the Associated Press photography team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their coverage of the war in Iraq, did what he was trained to do, keeping his finger on the shutter release at the first sound of gunfire and a fireball. He rushed toward Bhutto’s burning vehicle and created a series of heart-wrenching images of the fiery carnage – an event that plunged nuclear-armed Pakistan further into political chaos.

"They wanted to get her," the Pakistan-based Moore told Editor & Publisher magazine, "and they did." Bhutto’s assassination, blamed on Islamic militants with ties to Al Qaeda, left a street full of dying and dismembered Pakistanis whom Moore, a University of Texas graduate, set about photographing. Only when he arrived home in nearby Islamabad did Moore realize that his face and clothes were spattered with the blood of the dead and injured.

Moore’s images, transmitted to newspapers and magazines worldwide from the scene of the blast, were so powerful that television networks scrambled to be first to broadcast them and to have Moore do his own cogent on-air narration. But as powerful as Moore’s images were, they also raised the decades-old controversy about when should a photojournalist act as a professional and when should he, or she, act as a so-called Good Samaritan — a person who voluntarily gives aid and comfort to another human being in need, sometimes at their own personal risk.

Put another way, it’s the age-old question many photojournalists have faced at one time or another: “What do I do now — keep shooting and document a piece of history, or maybe help save a life that’s hanging in the balance?”

In Moore’s iconic image of a crying man, his hands uplifted toward what seems a merciless God, the street was strewn with bodies. Moore also photographed the dead, injured, and merely stunned, though he told NBC News’ Lester Holt that, “I prefer to photograph the living.” Yet Moore was no voyeur — his images were too intimate — but his pictures do make one wonder, “What would I have done if I were in Moore’s bloody shoes?”

And the debate isn’t just academic. Since 1985, the National Press Photographers Association annually has given a Humanitarian Award to a person who plays a “key role in the saving of lives or in rescue situations.” Often the recipient is the person who missed the picture, and perhaps paid a professional price, in the process of saving a life.

I know from personal experience.

In August 1985, I was waiting for my luggage in the Kabul Airport, then under Soviet occupation, when a powerful bomb exploded in the departure area, killing 28 persons, wounding 350, and leaving me – for a split second – with that same frightening thought. What next? Soviet soldiers pointing their AK-47 assault rifles in my face as I went for my camera bag made my decision easier. But the right thing to do in Afghanistan that day also was the human thing to do – help the injured, comfort the dying. And that’s what I did.

But my story doesn’t end there. The National Geographic writer, miles from the airport when the bomb detonated, made the episode the lead of his story, insisting it was emblematic of Afghanistan resistance to foreign occupation. Yet I had no picture to accompany his dramatic story-opener – a fact that made Bill Garrett, then editor of National Geographic, a decidedly unhappy man when I was summoned to his 10th floor corner office in Washington, DC, some weeks later.

“We sent you to Afghanistan to shoot pictures,” Garrett reminded me, “not to play Florence Nightingale.” I lived down the stigma of not getting the picture, but the episode remains instructive for journalism students in my ethics and values class at Indiana University.

Why? Because in the overwhelming majority of situations, our job is to get the picture and record history for our readers and viewers. Simply put, it’s our job.

Bill Foley, another Pulitzer Prize winner and former AP and Time magazine shooter, says that “looking over John Moore's images and hearing his voice describe the events, I had a moment of déjà vu.” A veteran of nine years in the Middle East, Foley says, “Surrounded by chaos, carnage, screaming, crying victims and survivors, there was not really a question of whether he did the ‘right thing’ or not. There was no ‘right thing.’ There was the only thing – recording what was in front of him.”

Rich Clarkson, former National Geographic director of photography, is one of several top photo executives and mentors who understand these split-second decisions are never easy and, hence, why we want students, photographers, and their editors to plan in advance for these moments of truth. “In the case of John Moore and Benazir Bhutto,” says Clarkson, a former NPPA president, “where a crowd with many to help was present, the importance of documenting the moment was far more important. But in the case of actually saving a life when no one else can, the photographer certainly should put down the cameras. Every situation is different.”

Recognizing this, photojournalists need to know where they stand. Most will come down on the side of doing what benefits society, even if their presence might cause further alarm, pain, or grief. A few photographers will hold to a universal belief that we never use our fellow man or woman as a means to an end and always put down their cameras to help the sick, the injured, and the dying. A few of us will try to find some virtuous middle point in the many shades of gray that is real life in the field. The point is that we need to know where we stand before we are confronted with what Moore saw through his viewfinder that grim December afternoon.

“Photographers take those risks. That’s the reality. They chose to be there to document history,” says Time magazine picture editor Deirdre Finzer. “And if all hell breaks loose, they should document it.”

Full disclosure: Ms. Finzer is a former student who knows where she stands. What about the rest of us?