On the Ethics of Citizen Photo Journalism

Yesterday I saw something horrible.

I was in the Powell Street BART Station after swimming when they closed the station. They found a body under one of the BART trains. I’m not sure if the guy jumped and it was a suicide or if he was pushed or what, but he was definitely crushed underneath the train. Here’s the SF Chronicle’s write up on it. I took a photo of the guy crushed under the train but it was pretty gruesome. I’m not sure why I took a photo of the incident other than it was just sort of a gut reaction to shoot anything that possibly could be citizen journalism with my camera.

I was pretty freaked out seeing the guy under the train. Afterwards I thought about publishing the photograph but questioned the journalistic integrity of that. Surely this guy must have family right? And why add to the ugliness in the world by publishing something so terrible. I contacted my friend John Curley who was an editor at the Chronicle for many years and now teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to ask his opinion. John got back with me and said that the Chronicle would not print such a photograph and so that confirmed what I was feeling and I chose not to publish the photo.

It was sad to see something like that.

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  1. Jasmeet says:

    Are you planning on keeping the picture? I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to keeping it, for fear of coming across it when combing my library.

  2. Miku says:

    I don’t think we should hide the ugliness of the world although I don’t support the exploitation of suffering either. I think at least you should keep the photo because in few decades it might become an important documentation of history.

  3. Farrell says:

    Thomas, you raise a very interesting and difficult issue here…

    I’m not saying you should or should not publish. Particularly since you are not a news organization.

    I was a reporter for about a decade and I can say that decisions like these are tough and don’t only have to do with privacy. The big question is this: Is there news value to publishing the photograph?

    For example, if the person fell and this was a dangerous spot where others had perished, then, yes, it might be important to print the photo so that others would know.

    Take a messy drunk driving accident/death. Might the photo of a mangled car make someone thing twice about driving drunk?

    Just some thoughts to wrestle with, as if life weren’t complicated enough…

  4. Ian Crane says:

    i for one, am glad you didnt post it, i do not want to see that today.

    however, i think it’s imporant in some ways, to see the ugliness of life. while i would not want the general media to publish photos and videos like that on the regular basis, i do not think that we should be as protected from it, as we are by the media.

    for instance, while i am not as liberal in opinion on the war as most of SF, i still do not think that it should be as whitewashed as it is.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    Are you planning on keeping the picture?

    I’ll keep it in my archive of RAW images for that day but I won’t process or include it in my finished library. I’ll probably never look at the photo again.

    I’m glad I chose not to publish it.

  6. Paul Browne says:

    As a casaul internet person , chancing on your site, I thank you for your restraint in not publishing.

    It would have been to easy (as a blogger) to use the ‘shock-value’ to get a few extra hits / subsribers.

    As you write, the guy has a family, somewhere. Would you want your kids seeing you in such a photo?


  7. I’m puzzled why we’re so lovingly accepting of movie violence, but when it happens in real life we get incredibly squeamish.

    I understand the idea of holding it so as to not traumatize his family, but 20 years from now when it’s not a fresh wound for them I don’t see anything particulary wrong with reminding people of their own mortality.

    We’re all going to die, no point in pretending it won’t happen. Going through a book like Mell Kilpatrick’s posthumous “Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories” is the strongest possible reminder that it might all end tomorrow. You can imagine their stories, who they were, who they might have become. A perfect innoculation against a temptation to waste time.

  8. Miguel says:

    Thomas, I believe you did right both by photographing the scene and by withholding it from being published on the web.

    I offer a case where publishing scenes of death is merited:

    The gallery displays photos taken by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. A few images of deceased children are present, so I warn readers who are sensitive about this.

  9. Juan says:

    Good thing you did not publish the photo. I remember seeing very graphic pictures in all Spanish newspapers on March 11 2004 after the Madrid bombings. Victims lying in the carcasses of what once were trains were very discernible. People could actually recognise their loved ones from several very clear pictures in full colour.
    It was gruesome and turned my stomach.
    It made a lasting impression. Both the terrorists and the Spanish press reared their ugliest of faces.