Departing from my usual focus on photography within the Arts, I want this week to draw attention to a debate brewing within photojournalism. As the events of the Boston bombings unfolded from the first explosion, caught by the live cameras of television crews reporting on the developments of the race, to the subsequent investigations and articles such as this very one you are reading now, news editors have had to make very quick decisions which have been both applauded and criticised.
Firstly, I think it is important to understand the changing face of photojournalism in an age of instant media. Photography as well as news articles can be, and now regularly are, uploaded to the internet within minutes of a news story occurring. As consumers of media we are more familiar with the idea of ‘breaking’ news than ever before. I first heard of the Boston bombings through Twitter, before looking for a more reliable source to check for further details that had emerged. Another recent example of this all too familiar process was the news of Margaret Thatcher’s passing, which caused somewhat of a ‘TwitStorm’ seven days prior to the bombings.
The interesting element to receiving breaking news through such forms of communication is the user-led content which is posted. World changing events such as the raid that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden were inadvertently live tweeted by @ReallyVirtual, and in effect will become part of the historical documentation that will surround this particular event in the future. Alongside these 140 character concise nuggets of information come the benefits of multimedia such as pictures, soundclips or video footage. This is where things begin to unravel from the traditional understanding of photojournalism.
The image I would like to focus on in regards to the Boston bombings is one which no doubt many of you have already seen in one form or another. Shown as part of this article as was published by The Washington Times, Charles Krupa’s (A/P photo) image shows a young man being wheeled to further assistance by some form of official and two bystanders. In this particular crop of the image we can see the man is in obvious shock and after a moments attention we notice the white tourniquet, before seeing the severity of the injury to his right leg. I begin with this version of the image as I believe it occupies the middle ground between the visual severity of the full image and the conservative crop offered by institutions such as the Metro in the United Kingdom.
In his personal account of the bombings John Tlumacki, staff photographer at The Boston Globe, recounts the moments directly after the first bomb exploded, recounting a telling interaction with a police officer. Pulling him to one side and warning him “Do me a favour. Do not exploit the situation.” Tlumacki comments that the police were “just reacting as cops”. Continuing to take photographs he admits the officer’s words “resonated” with him but that he thought “I gotta keep doing what I am doing”. In the moment of adrenaline it seems that Tlumacki had to stick to what he knew, just as the emergency services were sticking to their trained instinct.
There are many moral and ethical issues surrounding photojournalism which normally question the actions of the photographer. Why is the photographer not helping the injured? Is the photographer exploiting the subject of the photograph? Just for starting points. Depending on your viewpoint the photographer’s actions are usually defended under the name of journalism and furthering other forms of help such as aid donations. A poignant example being Kevin Carter’s photograph of a starving child in Sudan, which displays the extreme suffering that Carter witnessed for which he was accused of not ‘helping’ – although arguably not taking the photograph would have not allowed the strong (aid generating) image to reach a wide potential audience, something which did happen due to it being selected as the winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1994.
It seems once an image becomes iconic, or representational of an event, it reaches a point where nothing can touch it – an idea cheekily touched upon in MacDonald-Strand’s ‘Most Popular Of All Time’. In a simultaneous move we feel we can identify with the image and understand the event, but more often than not they become part of a visual narrative which goes on misunderstood or misinterpreted. Thinking about the events surrounding the bombings, it is remarkable to think that in the future these images will become part of a visual repertoire used to narrate the story of those involved.
Since beginning this article, the issue of responsible journalism has climaxed after an online vigilante manhunt led to ‘The New York Post’ publishing images of two unconfirmed suspects. Thinking about this and the people in the images of the devastation on the day it is important to remember the impact that images have. To borrow the horrible and over used phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the damage done to the families of the wrong suspects is neigh on impossible to retract. I’m sure they will receive some sort of compensation, however, I am yet to be convinced that such an irresponsible journalistic move can ever be compensated for enough. In regards to the victims of the bombings the pictures will serve as a constant reminder of the events of the day. As much as they become iconic, I think the lasting sentiment of this should be to remember the subjects of photojournalism are just people and should be treated with the respect that we would demand for ourselves.