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Friends and his dogs try to comfort Russell Dooley, left, who feared one of his dogs was still trapped in his fire engulfed home in Santa Rosa on Wednesday morning.

Friends and his dogs try to comfort Russell Dooley, left, who feared one of his dogs was still trapped in his fire engulfed home in Santa Rosa on Wednesday morning.

Today’s dilemna: When do you publish photos of someone dealing with a tragedy?

Last Wednesday I looked up after parking my car at the Press Democrat to see a giant plume of black (black is bad, white good) smoke within a half mile of the office. I was on the scene of the King St. house fire as the first fire truck was arriving.

For the future photojournalist, always shoot flames first. Those darn firefighters tend to put them out as soon as they can. Second look for the human element. How did this fire affect the people who live there.

It was easy to find the owner, who was crying loudly on the curb near the scene, comforted by some of his dogs and friends. I quickly shot a few photos with a very long lens, and then back to the flames. A neighbor shooting video told me the owner feared more of his dogs were trapped in the fire. I love my dog, so I grieved for him, but still kept one eye on him and grabbed a few more frames.  The poor guy later approached me and asked me not to publish pictures of him crying.

Sometimes I can reassure a subject the image will not be published, but this time I wasn’t sure if the image was important or not. I told him, “I’m sorry, I can’t promise you that.” This one was a tough call and I didn’t want to make it in the field. Very early on I learned to photograph everything, and decide with my editors what to publish back at the office. In this case we edited 8 photos from the scene—only one of the victim. In the paper the next day the image ran small on the second page of the local. Click here for a link to the gallery of the local fire.

Why are images of tragedy important? Sometimes they lead to big changes in the world—images from the Vietnam war (this hyperlink leads to 30 photos that changed the world including many from Vietnam) certainly helped end the conflict. Sometimes changes are small but important—Stanley Forman’s (click here for Forman’s site) horrifying image of a woman and child falling from a fire escape led to changes in the law regarding safety issues and fire escapes.

This case was different. No great changes in the world coming from publishing. We see the image of him crying, the worried look on his dogs faces and we put ourselves in his position. Maybe we double check our smoke detectors or just hug our dogs. I believe people viewing the image empathize with him, not stigmatize him. Images like this one most often lead the general public to offer donations to help the people get back on their feet.  People have requested prints of images from the most tragic of scenes.

The victim’s brother didn’t think so. He called late that night. Most of the words were a four-letter variety, but in between he yelled, “I hope you feel good making money off other people’s tragedy.”

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