On Shooting the Messenger

If confronted with harsh photography, let’s just blame the photographer for being there, for making those photographs, or let’s talk about how photography is cruel. Why is that? Why those debates? Why don’t we instead talk about what the photographers are actually showing us.

Joerg Colberg

First, go read Coberg’s post. There is a lot of truth there about how we react to unpleasant photos and how we generally expect photo-viewing to be a pleasurable experience.

Having thought about it for a few days, I’ve realized that most of our shoot-the-messenger reactions to photos are a combination of two distinct, but related, reactions.

  1. You shouldn’t be taking photos, you should be helping the subject of your photo instead.
  2. If I were there, I’d be helping out instead of taking photos.

Reaction 1 is unique to photography where taking the photos keeps you from being able to do other things. Writers can take part and write later. Video records continuously so it can kind of run in the background. Photography requires constant attention to pick what moments to capture. As a result, it’s very easy to accuse a photographer of not helping.

The best example of this kind of criticism is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning photo. People are sucked into the photo by their empathy for the child. Yet while they only care because of the photo, they also dislike the photographer for taking the photos instead of helping.

Stories such as that of Nick Ut and Kim Phuc show how wrong it is to criticize photographers like this. And how important taking these kind of photographs really is.*

*What happens when someone like Sebastião Salgado makes beautiful photos out of unpleasant subjects is a completely different phenomenon.

Reaction number 2 is almost certainly BS. The recent shooting in New York pretty clearly showed that anyone with a camera will take photos instead of helping. We all want to look and share what we see.

If anything, we shoot the messenger for reminding us of our own hypocrisy.

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