Mentors, Now More Than Ever

All photographers need to learn from those who go before us how to live as decent human beings and have respect for those we photograph.

This appeared in News Photographer Magazine in June 2009

We learn from others how to do the right thing.

By Steve Raymer

In this age of ombudsmen, blogs, tweets on Twitter, Facebook, and professional journals like News Photographer, the split-second ethical decisions of photojournalists are often quickly dissected and soon added to the mounting case studies in journalism school ethics and values classes. And that is as it should be.

When we go live from news helicopters to show the tragic death of a suicidal man on a crowded Los Angeles freeway – an event that drew huge audiences in 1998 – or capture the terrifying images of Vietnamese children scorched by napalm, as Nick Ut of the Associated Press did with such immediacy in 1972, the reading and viewing public takes notice and holds us to account. Some photojournalists are scorned, while others, like Ut, are praised for the way he bundled nine-year-old Kim Phuc, the tragically burned pietà of the Vietnam War, into his car and took her to a nearby hospital, saving her life and forging a lifelong relationship with Phuc, now a Canadian peace activist. Media ethics textbooks are filled with images that call into question how, in the words of the National Press Photographers Association's revised Code of Ethics, we give “consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy.”

And truth be told, many of us, whether we are covering a tragic drowning on a storm-swept Long Island beach or documenting the work of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the slums of Calcutta (as I have recently) are no less anguished by our decisions, or reflexes, than the late Eddie Adams was in 1968, when he made the iconic image of a South Vietnamese general executing a suspected Vietcong guerilla fighter on the streets of Saigon. Adams refused to accept his Pulitzer Prize cash award for the image, which left him pained and conflicted until his death of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2004. What we do requires judgment and sometimes a split-second decision can make the difference between being an unsung Good Samaritan – a person, in the words of the Apostle Luke, who “gives help or sympathy to those in distress” – or a prize winner or a professional outcast. Yet ours remains a profession that asks us to render the human condition, from unpopular wars to spousal abuse, for a public that both curses us and can’t get enough of what we do.

But are professional photojournalists the real problem? Or does the problem of when to shoot and what to publish or broadcast involve a lot more actors than anyone cares to admit? We have mandatory ethics classes in our colleges and universities, in-service training, and codes of ethics for every organization that does the public’s business, including our own. The updated NPPA Code of Ethics, for example, is emphatic that we “intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see,” or perhaps more importantly, that we photojournalists “treat all subjects with respect and dignity.” We get it, at least most of the time.

For example, the public and the profession were rightly outraged when Jacque Langevin, one of three French photographers charged with manslaughter in the 1997 crash of Princess Diana of Wales asked a French radio interviewer, “Why should I be able to photograph dying Rwandans during the massacres (in a 1994 genocide) and not Lady Di?” Langevin claimed he was just doing his job making pictures of the mortally injured Diana, but most of us would probably not confuse photographing mass murder in Africa with our human obligation to aid an accident victim bleeding to death in a Paris road crash. Langevin’s nominal fine of one Euro for invading Princess Diana’s privacy, in the words of a French appeals court, perhaps only confirmed what many of us have long known – photographers pass their ethical problems along to their editors, publishers, and news directors.

Editors play an equally important role in identifying and explaining to the public the social good that justifies, for example, intruding on a family’s – and a nation’s – moment of grief when flag-draped coffins of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead are returned to the United States. And by editors I include editors of the world’s news Web sites, where increasingly most of us get our news, as well as the tech-savvy who write algorithms that compile words and images like so much sandwich meat. We must reach out to these new gatekeepers and help them understand that our collective credibility depends upon our shared commitment to human dignity. Why, for example, should the BBC News Web site, like many others, provide two pages of detailed instructions for so-called “citizen journalists” about how to shoot and transmit news pictures, but fail to give any ethical guidelines, aside from these few words of caution: “Make sure you have permission from anyone pictured before submitting the photographs”?

In fact, it is no secret that some of today’s most compelling news pictures are coming not from professionals, but from the public. The London subway bombings of 2005 were perhaps the world’s first gruesome event covered as much by the public shooting cell phone video as photojournalists documenting history. The world news networks patted themselves on the back for recruiting a new army of unpaid photographers who, unlike most of us, have never thought in advance about when it is the right or wrong time to make a picture. And how can we forget the iconic image of US Airways flight 1549? Newspapers from Charlotte to Los Angles pulled out all the stops last January for a picture taken on an Apple iPhone by Twitter user and tourist Janis Krums of Sarasota, FL, who captured a tail-heavy US Airways Airbus sinking in the Hudson River against the backdrop of the New Jersey shoreline bathed in warm sunlight that can only be described as National Geographic-like.

Those of us who teach ethics and values, and who have on occasion not taken a picture because more was at stake than our jobs, need to find new ways of reaching out to the places where people are getting their news – on the Internet – and involve them in our ethical discussions. Why? Because every time a picture shows up on the Internet, and later on television or in the newspaper, as in the recent case of the battered rock star Rihanna, we loose something of ourselves and what we stand for.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, so well known to college ethics students for urging that we find a virtuous middle path amid life’s extremes, wrote that the practical and virtuous acts of people, not rules, make us moral human beings. Aristotle’s call for virtue and his injunction we find mentors on whom we can model our professional behavior, is as valid today as was when he wrote it in the 4th century B.C.E.

Long ago, I knew an Army combat photographer in Vietnam named Gordon Gahan, who was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism not for taking pictures – his job – but for putting down his cameras one very bloody day at Dak To in 1967 and rescuing wounded paratroops from the line of fire. Gahan went on to become a legendary National Geographic magazine staff photographer, loyal NPPA member, and one of my closest friends until he died in 1984. I have never forgotten the lesson Gahan taught all of us at Hill 875, and I tell students about it regularly. Faced with the choices of hunkering down in the jungle and saving his own life or foolishly firing his Nikons in the direction of North Vietnamese machine guns, Gahan summoned the courage to do the right thing – rescue the wounded.

We all need mentors. Gahan was mine. It is time we commit ourselves to mentoring a new and expanding group of editors, who do not always share our ringside view of history, and a whole new group of photographers – the public.