‘What It Feels Like To Be Photographed In A Moment Of Grief’

Here’s something for us all to ponder in these days when journalism is more and more about emotion…

On the night of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a woman named Aline Marie attended a prayer vigil at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was packed with local residents and the media. After about 45 minutes, Marie saw the statue of Mary and knelt down to pray.

“I sat there in a moment of devastation with my hands in prayer pose asking for peace and healing in the hearts of men,” she recalls. “I was having such a strong moment and my heart was open, and I started to cry.”

Her mood changed abruptly, she says, when “all of a sudden I hear ‘clickclickclickclickclick’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal.”

What particularly troubles her, she says, is “no one came up to me and said ‘Hi, I’m from this paper and I took your photograph.’ No one introduced themselves. I felt violated. And yes, it was a lovely photograph, but there is a sense of privacy in a moment like that, and they didn’t ask.”…

Here is the picture in question. NPR goes on to pose this question:

What are your thoughts? Should photographers interact with their subjects in moments of grief, or is it more respectful to leave them alone?

Which is a good one.

I’m old school on this. Way old school. Recently, in a comment on another thread, I told this anecdote about an experience that deeply affected the way I look at this sort of thing:

One of my first assignments as a reporter, back in the 70s, was to go interview a family that had lost some children in a fire. It was one of those awful situations of a family that lived in a rural shack heated by a wood-or-coal-burning stove, and some coals got out of the stove and caused the house to burn like kindling.

The photographer and I found the home where the survivors were staying with relatives. It was a house just like the one that had burned, way out in the country. The parents of the dead children were at the funeral home making arrangements. The family that lived in the home let us in, and then left us to wait in the front room while they congregated back in the kitchen. There was no conversation between us.

The photographer — much older and more experienced than I was — and I sat on the edges of our chairs, feeling EXTREMELY awkward, intensely feeling how much we were intruding, and unwelcome. But I guess maybe those poor folks didn’t feel empowered to turn us away.

We glanced at each other uncomfortably every few moments, and stared around the room the rest of the time.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the wood-burning stove in the center of the room. There were burned spots in the battered linoleum floor all around it. Another imminent tragedy, staring me in the face.

We just sat there, waiting to pester those poor bereaved parents, dreading their return, for about an hour.

Finally, one of us — I think it was Bob, the photog — said “Let’s get out of here.” And we did.

Here’s the upshot of the story. Although it became more and more common over the years for news organizations to harass bereaved families in their grief and demand to know how they felt — I even worked with some people who maintained that it gave families a welcome catharsis — I resolved that day that if I were ever an editor, I would never send anyone on such an assignment.

As it turns out, I was an editor a couple of years later, and for the rest of my career. And I never forgot that resolution. Reporters can attest that I sent them on a lot of awkward, unpleasant assignments over the years, but I never sent anyone out on one like that.

Now, having declared myself entirely against this sort of thing, I can offer some defense of the photographer in this case. First, this doesn’t appear to have been the worst sort of intrusion, as there is no indication that the subject of the photo was a bereaved family member. Second, if you are going to take pictures like this — and that is to me debatable — then it’s disingenuous to demand that the subject be asked first. The journalistic version of the Observer Effect kicks in. You can’t get a picture like that — an honest, real one — after you’ve made the subject aware of your presence. And really, do you even want a picture of someone who would say “yes,” and then strike a pose for you? I think not. Such a photo would not only be ethically compromised, it would be downright creepy.

Thoughts? Or feelings, considering the topic?

22 thoughts on “‘What It Feels Like To Be Photographed In A Moment Of Grief’

  1. Steven Davis II

    I’ve always said if someone stuck a camera in my face at a time like that, that I wouldn’t be the only one crying.

  2. Burl Burlingame

    A church filled with photographers is not exactly a private zone, particularly if they’re all on deadline. My training and first ten years of my career were as a photojournalist, and it’s difficult to be unobtrusive, so you learn when to shoot and when to get out. The best way is to be honestly blunt — you’re not there for the subjects, you’re there for the citizens who are interested in the subjects. That said, the best images come from empathy with the subjects.

    1. Steven Davis II

      … you’re there for the shot period, the more dramatic and tragic the bigger smile you get. How would you like a photojournalist showing up and snapping a picture of you seconds after being told your kid is dead? It’s the moment photojournalists live for.

    2. Steven Davis II

      “A church filled with photographers is not exactly a private zone, particularly if they’re all on deadline”

      Oh no, not a deadline!!!

  3. Mark Stewart

    The photographers didn’t stalk her; she stopped to pray right in front of the scrum outside a public event.

    Knocking on the door of someone who has just experienced a family loss to ask their reaction is something entirely different. Of course the answer to NPR’s question should be to leave the person alone; but that hardly means it’s wrong to snap a good pic.

      1. Mab

        It’s an energized paraphrasing no doubt. Jesus could sound a little more like Festus, though, there in verse 22/23:

        Don’t go around all squinty-eyed and suspicious…


      2. Bart


        The translation is more in keeping with what can be more easily understood for our times. If you read the KJ version of Matthew 6:1-2, “Take heed thay ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the snyagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Vierily I say unto you. They have their reward.

        In the NIV, the same passages are written: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” “So, when you give to the needy, do not annunce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

        In the New Life Translation, the same passages are written: “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” “When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do – blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all of the reward they will ever get.”

        I have read the Bible Gateway versions as well and in essence, they are all saying the same thing but adapted to current interpretations of the meaning and words.

        These two passages are the very reason my opinion of some very public figures, politicians or not, is very low. Do it, don’t advertise or talk about it.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, but the one Mab pointed to, dubbed “The Message,” seems to take liberties.

        The other translations emphasize that you’re not supposed to act for OTHER PEOPLE to see how righteous you are. This version tells you not to “role-play before God,” which is something else.

        It just seems a little too loose to me. Intriguing, but loose.

        1. Bart

          I was trying to be careful with my response but I agree that the interpretation is a little too loose for me as well although, the term, “role-play before God” can be interpreted as being a hypocrite and playing a role for publicity only, not for the genuine act of doing good for others and keeping it silent.

        2. Mab

          He seems to strive for the spirit of the Word, not the letter of the Word. Here is the disclaimer:

          “The goal of The Message is to engage people in the reading process and help them understand what they read. This is not a study Bible, but rather [‘]a reading Bible.[‘] The verse numbers, which are not in the original documents, have been left out of the print version to facilitate easy and enjoyable reading. The original books of the Bible were not written in formal language. The Message tries to recapture the Word in the words we use today.


  4. Burl Burlingame

    Photojournalists use visual means to report reality. Sometimes it’s very difficult emotionally to do so and maintain objectivity. This is particularly true when folks are expressing grief. Photographers are human beings too, and capturing the “decisive moment” when humanity is shared can be a stressful business.

    1. Steven Davis II

      So where is the line drawn between photojournalist and paparazzi?

      Brad apparently didn’t like my first response.

      1. Barry

        I think I actually agree with you Steven. Not every reporter or photo journalist lives for the tragic situation- but plenty do in today’s world. It can make a career – or a year for some of them.

        My opinion of the media use to be very high- it’s very very low now.

  5. Kevin Dietrich

    Brad, I greatly respect you for having had the guts as an editor not send a reporter out for that kind of story. It was an awful, awful thing to be sent on that sort of assignment.

    And I find it completely unnecessary to intrude on people in what could be the most devastating experience of their lives. I don’t want to see it in paper, on the television or on the web, and I certainly wouldn’t want someone snapping pictures if it was me.

  6. Mab

    What really is this woman’s complaint? We now know not only who she is but her private prayers as well.

    It’s a tragic situation to exploit from any angle — but if she were so private and violated, the entire world wouldn’t now know about it.

    I can’t shake squinty-eyed and suspicious.

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