Wrote Susan Sontag in her seminal book On Photography:
Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.
A lot of photographers take heat for capturing their subjects in life-threatening situations. Shouldn’t they be doing something to help the situation rather than documenting its demise?
Photographers are journalists too. Without their pictures, we can’t relive the event. They’re doing their job.
The main gripe with most witness photography is with the amafessional, who like any other citizen journalist has a camera phone in their pocket. Except, we see too often prioritize the camera over what should be the human instinct to assist.
Photography can be an act of selfishness, especially when the object is suffering.
To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing —including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.
Social networks compel people to see. People go on vacation just so they can share pictures to their Instagram feed. Any museum that bars photography is somehow instantly boring. Remove Instagram, and the world becomes a lot less interesting for most folks.
The photographer’s role in emergency situations is complicated. When participation is voluntary, the camera offers a way to do something rather than nothing. The viewer’s discretion says a lot about their moral priorities.
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