Newtown Photograph Sparks Discussion of Photojournalism Etiquette

In Emmanuel Dunand's photograph of Aline Marie, once can see the reporters gathered behind her. To see a larger version of the image visit NPR's The Picture Show.

In Emmanuel Dunand’s photograph of Aline Marie, once can see the reporters gathered behind her. To see a larger version of the image visit NPR’s The Picture Show.

A photograph by AFP/Getty Images photographer Emmanuel Dunand of a woman mourning on the night of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings sparked a bit of controversy and a lot of discussion about journalistic etiquette on NPR’s The Picture Show blog yesterday.

NPR had run the photograph of Aline Marie praying in front of a statue of Mary outside a Newtown church with a story about the shootings. Marie got in touch with NPR to voice a complaint that her very private moment had been interrupted by photographers, and none of them had asked who she was. “I felt like a zoo animal,” Marie told NPR. “No one introduced themselves. I felt violated.”

Marie’s response was measured. She didn’t ask NPR to take down the photograph. And her story ended up on NPR’s blog.

There Coburn Dukehart wrote that he’d spoke with Dunand, the photographer, who said, Dukehart writes, “He thought that leaving her alone [with her grief] was the most respectful thing to do.” Dunand also told Dukehart that AFP did not require photographers to get their subjects’ names when making images in public places.

Getting the name of a subject helps a photographer deliver a more detailed caption that gives editors more information with which to work. This clearly isn’t possible during a fluid situation, especially one that involves large groups of people or takes place in the midst of a conflict. But when a photograph captures an intimate moment, and the power of their image is predicated on the emotion of a single person, being unable to identify that person runs contrary to the feeling of the image.

As one commenter noted: “I’ve been a professional photojournalist for nearly 30 years, and if I ever went back to an editor with that photo and no name, the first thing they would say is “‘nice photo, but we need a name.'”

On the other hand, there were clearly a number of photographers and videographers around Marie. Would she have wanted each one to introduce her or his self? Was it realistic to do so?

What would you have done?

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4 Responses to “Newtown Photograph Sparks Discussion of Photojournalism Etiquette”

  1. StJohnn Says:

    I would have taken the photograph myself. I realize it’s a private moment, but the moment itself overshadows who the person is…its about that moment and yes it is in a public situation. By no means should anyone become like the paparazzi, but as a photojournalist you are attempting to get the emotion of the moment and this photographer definitely obtained it.

  2. Mel Snyder Says:

    I’ve been in similar situations quite a few times. Often, I will say something to the subject, other times not. I covered the first anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, was a deeply emotional moment for all. I shot at a respectful distance, and on occasion, stopped my subjects, we shared our emotion, and I offered to email the photo to them.

    I think I would have done as the cameraman here. i would have shot the image, and then might have knelt beside her (even though I am Jewish) and spoken to her, to share her grief – and then, after establishing some kind of connection, decided whether to say something to her.

    I find most of the comments here by non-journalists simply unrealistic about what is behind the images in their newspapers and on their TV sets. Public events – even public expressions of private grief – are part of the horror of events like this, and must be captured.

    More than 40 years ago, my undergraduate thesis was on “The Ethics of Photojournalism,” and the cover was the secretly shot image of Ruth Snyder (no relative) being electrocuted at Sing Sing – arguably the most controversial image in all of photojournalism history. Even in the tabloid era of NYC journalism, the blurry image stunned the profession. Later, WeeGee captured far mor grieving images of mothers bent over dead sons, dead Mafia dons bleeding from multiple wounds – and no one was shocked.

    in the public grief era in which we live, and have lived for many decades, we’re startled and offended only when we find ourselves on the other end of the lens.

  3. Carolina Kroon Says:

    Sometimes its more challenging within a large group of photographers /media etc. The group mind of work, deadlines and the scope of the story certainly affects the environment and seems to at times create more of a separation between media and who the story is about. It is so individual and contextual what we all chose to do in these moments. Sometimes you read the person as not wanting you there at all and sometimes you ignore that to take that photo and other times you walk away. Other times you spend an hour or more talking with the person not necessarily because you are mandated to or are trying to “get” a story but because you are human and at times you or I at least I want to be more than “just a media person”.

  4. Gina Sierra Says:

    There is a very delicate line between the need to capture significant, historic moments and the need to respect a grieving community. I am a photographer. I also grew up and lived most of my life 10 minutes away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are a small community. We all know each other, and no one in the rest of the world knew us at all- until this happened.

    Out of respect for the families and neighbors who were directly involved with this tragedy, I elected to stay away from Newtown in the weeks following the shooting. The media was… insane. It was completely overwhelming how many outsiders were flooding into the quiet town next door. Part of me felt compelled to photograph and document the memorials, the touching moments that were happening- but the part of me that didn’t want to add to the circus was stronger.

    I feel bad for this woman. If you really feel you need a photo of her that badly, use a good telephoto and quietly grab it from far away, and move on. Do not interrupt her moment of prayer and grief. If she is surrounded by media coming and going like flies, then maybe skip photographing this person all together. Do not add to that. Yes, it’s a significant news event that ought to be covered and shared. But NO, we do not need hundreds of media professionals trying to “get the scoop,” especially at the expense of a grieving community.

    @Mel Snyder:
    “In the public grief era in which we live, and have lived for many decades, we’re startled and offended only when we find ourselves on the other end of the lens.”
    This is very true. I have never experienced a national tragedy from this perspective before. It definitely increased my compassion for other communities who have struggled to recover from and cope with similar massacres.