Photography Dilemmas: Big and Small

There are great ethical debates over photography, especially over photographers who document tragic events or events that are about to become tragic instead of acting as help. In an essay written almost 40 years ago, Susan Sontag notes,

“How plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph” (Sontag 12).

Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist comes to mind when this topic is brought up. Famous for his photograph of a vulture in Sudan, waiting for the skinny, starving, little girl in the foreground to die so it could be fed.

Carter's Pulitzer winning photograph of a vulture and Sudanese girl (1993)
Carter’s Pulitzer winning photograph of a vulture and Sudanese girl (1993). Retrieved from The Upper Nile Times.

This is not the only photograph of its kind taken by Carter and not the only one that plagued him afterwards. People all throughout the world wondered about the girl’s fate and why her photographer did nothing more than chase away the bird and then light a cigarette as he watched her slowly continue her desperate journey.

The photographs haunted him, the events haunted him, regret of his actions haunted him, and eventually his Pulitzer Prize and promising career could not give him enough joy. The drugs he smoked could not offer enough release.

His suicide note read this:

“…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…” (Carter, as quoted in Time)

As Scott Macleod of Time put it in an article about Carter’s life and death, “[t]he brief obituaries that appeared around the world suggested a morality tale about a person undone by the curse of fame.”

Saigon execution: Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, 1968 Retrieved from Rare Historical Photos.
Saigon execution: Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, 1968. Retrieved from Rare Historical Photos.

This dilemma certainly is a huge and ongoing controversy all these years later, multiplied by nearly every citizen being constantly armed with a camera or camera phone, able to freeze a moment in time instead of encouraging it to dissipate.

There is also a much less serious, yet still heavy consequence for photographers being photographers instead of participants.

“To capture the moment, you have to remove yourself from the moment” (Chen).

In extreme cases this absence of involvement might mean that a child dies, a man gets shot, a subway runs over the man on the tracks. In mild cases it might mean that one forgets to experience a birthday party, a wedding, a vacation.

And that is dangerous too because at the end of your life, you could end up with a computer drive full of pictures that have little to no meaning or memory besides the beauty captured or the action of pressing a button.

This conflict is something I realized for myself a few years ago, after coming back from a week in England with hundreds of pictures of cathedrals and Big Ben that were nothing but poorer imitations of hundreds of thousands more from the internet. Why was the need to take a picture of something documented countless times already stronger than the need to walk around in that place and time, letting the surroundings soak into my mind and memory? When I see one of those pictures now, I have no recollection of the moment in which it was taken. In fact, I don’t know that I have brought the pictures out to view since a few weeks after the trip was finished.

“Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, or for giving an appearance of participation” (Sontag 10).

“Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on” (Sontag 10).

Dr. Linda Henkel has researched the relationship between picture taking and the memory of that experience to find that often photographers are robbed of a significant experience to remember because they expect the camera to do it for them.

“People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them” (Henkel, as quoted by The Telegraph).

I don’t want to miss incredible moments. When I went to Greece this past summer, I had a month full of incredible moments. I took less photographs during that month than I did the one week I was in England. I did have more video, however. For me, video is much more alive than a still picture. Pictures can be beautiful, but videos draw me in more and revive my experiences more fully. Still, my camera was not always in my hand.

“As a photographer I have to know when to put my camera down, if just to pause for a moment in order to consolidate, or for my eyes to survey the entire scenario” (Edelstein).

Poseidon's temple at Cape Sounion, Greece Personal photograph by author. May 2015.
Poseidon’s temple at Cape Sounion, Greece. Personal photograph by author. May 2015.

I have so many joy-filled memories from living in Greece, and all I use the pictures for is to show others the beauty of the place. Ingrained in my mind forever are the moments that were lived, not captured.

“See things through your eyes or your phone’s. You can’t do both” (Guzmán).


Chen, Robert. “Why Photographers miss out on life.” Embrace Possibility Blog. 2012. Web. 17 Mar 2016.

Farah, Ali Sadig. “In South Sudan, The Vulture is Waiting For The Child to Die And Eat.” Khartom, Sudan, 20 Jan 2016. Web. 17 Mar 2016.

Guzmán, Monica. “Do you live this moment, or capture it? Facing an everyday digital dilemma.” Geek Wire. 30 May 2103. Web. 17 Mar 2016.

Knapton, Sarah. “Taking photographs ruins the memory, research finds. The Telegraph. Dec 2013. Web. 1 Mar 2016.

Macleod, Scott. “The Life and Death of Kevin Carter.” Time. Johannesburg, 24 June 2001.

“Saigon execution: Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, 1968.” Rare Historical Photos: And the Stories Behind Them. 13 May 2014. Web. 17 Mar 2016.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977. Print.

2 thoughts on “Photography Dilemmas: Big and Small

Add yours

  1. I really like that Henkel quote towards the end.I never really see the necessity of taking a lot of pictures at events;I go to rock concerts at least once a semester,but I buy a tour shirt to remember the event rather than take pictures.I do,like you,take a few videos.I prefer to put my phone in my pocket and jam instead of take photos of it all.


  2. “To capture a moment, you have to remove yourself from it.” That was a really powerful quote. As someone who studies journalism and news writing in depth, I identified with that particular quote a lot. The ethical and moral choice you make often boil down to which need outweighs the other: natural instinct (the urge we feel to help those in need) or learned instinct (the rules and guidelines for journalism that have almost become muscle memory). Photojournalists have been taught to snap a picture in the two seconds, almost without even thinking. It’s only after the photo has been taken that they realize the need for their active participation. And then there are rules involved that often limit their level of involvement. It’s such a thin line that causes many to reconsider their photojournalist careers. I’m so glad you wrote about this issue, because it’s one that everyone should be aware of. However, it’s also a controversy that won’t be settling any time soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: