Photographing Grief: Voyeuristic or Empathetic?

I love photojournalism. As an always learning photographer, I am trying to notice what kind of pictures make the best stories. There are constant photo contests being run by different organizations and websites, and I love to look at the top picks of those contests. I have noticed, beyond landscape pictures, frequently the photos that win are of people in dire situations or people caught in a moment of incredible emotion, usually grief or sadness. As a photographer, I look at those snapshots of moments of intense grief or loss with conflicting emotions. I can recognize the odd beauty found in seeing someone express an abundance of grief. I also feel that it feels too voyeuristic to be looking at someone in such a moment of intimate emotion.

Pictures are an incredible medium of art and expression because it is often hard to express with words why we like a picture beyond it being ‘beautiful’ or ‘amazing.’ But I will attempt to do so a bit now.

A photographer is able to give us a moment captured in time. It’s a bit unnatural. Often times we get to see things we would normally never see. Photography makes it possible. Photography also gives us the ability to hold on to what would otherwise be fleeting moments in time, whether it be those few seconds of pink sky as the sun sets, the moment LeBron James hits a buzzer beater to win a game, the collapse of a World Trade Center, or the face of someone laughing or crying. Each picture taken is a time capsule. Pictures often function as a time machine, tapping into the memory of all of our senses. This is just scratching the surface of what makes photography so great. Photography creates intrigue and interest.

As we experience great times of tragedy or loss as a country or community, all the news programs quickly grab their video cameras and “film” cameras to give us images to understand what is going on. Those of us who are not dealing with the tragedy personally don’t know what to do with how we are feeling. The Sandy Hook shooting didn’t actually affect my everyday world. I didn’t know anyone involved. I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone involved. Nothing changed that day for me. I still had my graduation to attend later that day. If I had not gotten on Facebook or turned on the TV that day, that Friday would have been no different than any other Friday. And even with the TV on, my Friday did not change much at all. It is because of this that I really didn’t even know how to feel. I wanted to feel sad, because of how horrible the tragedy was. And I did to a certain extent. But for a person who has no connection to those people or that community, or even that region of the United States I found it hard to be truly impacted. The only way that this becomes a reality for me is through pictures — whether it be photographs or video. I saw mothers and fathers screaming and crying. I saw video of students leaving the school, reminiscent of the Columbine shooting. Police remained stoic and poised while people around them were frantic and somewhat hysterical.

Days after the shooting we were shown the pictures of all the children killed — all smiling of course. Even now, anytime the Aurora shooting is brought up we are shown a crazed, wide-eyed, orange haired young man. We are also shown pictures of the families. Families looking confused. Individual family members looking distraught. And then we get a glimpse of the sorrow. We empathize. We begin to feel differently. That is the power of photography.

As a photographer I can appreciate this power. I realize the impact a single photo can make. People try to use this power all the time on Facebook to make people “like” or comment on things. The power of photography here is used usually as a guilt thing, though.

When I see photography that captures a moment of an individual’s mourning, I respect it’s power. I will say, however, I feel like I may be inappropriately entering into an intimate moment in someone’s life. I feel like I am stealing that intimacy away. The picture recreates that intimate moment every time someone looks at it, only they are now a participant. I personally believe this is why we are intrigued by such pictures. Normally, we would not feel that it would be appropriate to be viewing someone in such a moment. If we were physically present for such a moment, we would probably want to look at it but be driven to look away out of respect for that person’s privacy. Photography gives us the ability to view that intimate moment without offending the person directly.

So, should a photographer photograph such moments? Should a photographer use the power of the lens to give people the opportunity to have a glimpse into the intimate moments of other people’s lives? What is the responsibility of the photographer when dealing with this power?

Here is an article by NPR dealing with this very question:

I’m leaving these questions open because I am unsure of it myself. I do think it is healthy to be thinking about such questions. Then there are also the ethical questions of making money off of pictures showing people’s intimate moments of grief. But that is another discussion for another day.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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