SHOOT! OR NOT
by Dick Kraus
News photographers are always discussing the ethics of shooting pictures
of sensitive situations. One of those situations came up for me at
one point in my career. One of two Long Island victims of the Heaven's
Gate cult suicides was buried. The family had requested privacy at
the funeral and grave site. But, our editors assigned me and a reporter
to cover it, anyway. Isn't it grand that the people who make those
decisions aren't the ones who have to face irate, grieving family
and friends? The decision makers are tucked away in their insular
offices while we grunts have to make lame excuses to the incredulous
mourners. And they wonder why we seem to be losing touch with the
people we serve.
This particular funeral was held in the small, upscale community of
Locust Valley. I half expected to see a media antenna farm growing
outside the church. But, the only media who showed up on this was
a video cameraman from the local cable news station, and a still photographer
from a NYC paper, in addition to our writer and me. I had gotten on
site first and took a position across the street, where a 200mm zoom
gave me all I needed. I certainly wasn't going to go "in your
face" on this.
The reporter was a young man who was a recent hire for the police
beat. I guess in deference to my age and experience (well, age, anyway)
he asked if I thought he should try to sneak into the church to listen
to the service. I told him that he should do whatever he thought
was appropriate. Although our paper's policy is not to intrude when
asked to stay out, his editors were expecting a story. I said that
if this were a funeral for some crazed psycho killer, I would have
no qualms about acting more aggressively. But, these were "nice"
people and didn't deserve to have their grief intruded upon. I related
this story from an earlier time in my career.
The renowned ex-Brooklyn Dodger catcher, Roy Campanella, had gotten
word that his wife of many years was suing him for divorce. Campanella,
who lived not far from where this particular funeral was taking place,
was a paraplegic, having been seriously injured in an auto accident
at the peak of his career. He was confined to a wheelchair for the
rest of his life.
I was assigned to accompany a female reporter to his home, in hopes
of getting some comments to this latest turn of events, and possibly
a photo to go with the story.
When we arrived at his house, we were told that he wasn't home. As
we walked back to our cars, we looked around the corner of the house
and saw Campanella in his wheelchair, talking to some man on the back
patio. It was too far for a photograph based on the meager lens power
that I owned in those days. As we stood on the sidewalk, contemplating
our next move, Campanella's guest got into his car and drove off,
and lo and behold, around the corner of the house came Roy Campanella
by himself. He was trying to wheel himself to the front door. Why
he came to the front instead of going in the back way, I'll never
know. But, here he was coming toward us.
At some point, he looked up and saw us; me with a camera dangling
from my neck. At that point, he lowered his head almost into his lap
as he tried to pick up the pace and avoid us. We walked up to him
and the reporter asked if she could talk to him about his marital
situation. He mumbled something in the negative and kept wheeling
to get into the house. We just stood there as he entered the sanctity
of his home and closed the door behind him.
The reporter looked at me and said, "He was right in front of
you, for cryin' out loud. Why didn't you shoot a picture?"
I responded. "Did you ever in your life see a more helpless,
pathetic individual? We have a ton of pictures of the man in our library.
There are plenty of them while he was an active player, and lots more
of him after his accident. How could I possibly add to this man's
degradation by taking his picture under these circumstances? Especially
since he is one of the "nice" people."
I'm not sure what our editors would have said if they found out what
had transpired that day. But, I can tell you, that I've always been
able to sleep well at night.
Please don't misinterpret what I have recounted, here. Under the right
set of circumstances, I have stuck my cameras "in your face"
to get a photo. But every instance has to be judged on its own merit.
There are no set rules for this. You, and only you, will ever know
when to push the button, and when to back off.