Asking Permission Or Recording History When Photographing Grief

Jan 29, 2013
Originally published on March 12, 2013 4:55 pm

It isn't common for me to draw attention to another NPR blog, but an ethics debate today on the photo blog "The Picture Show" raises questions of interest to anyone interested in news media, ethics and NPR.

On the evening of the Newtown shooting, AFP photographer Emmanuel Dunand captured the image of a grieving woman praying in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a Newtown Catholic church. Several days later, NPR used the image on its website for an All Things Considered report, "Newtown Tragedy: Would A Good God Allow Such Evil?"

The woman in the photo, Aline Marie, later contacted NPR and complained that the photographers at what was a church vigil had violated the privacy of her suffering, and that Dunand had not asked for her permission to use the picture after taking it.

Your heart goes out to the woman, who is not demanding that the photo be taken down. Rather, more in sorrow than anger, she said that Dunand should at least have accorded her the respect of introducing himself.

But then NPR multimedia editor Coburn Dukhart talked to the photographer. He seems sympathetic, too. He expressed his own deep grief as he worked at Sandy Hook, recognized Aline's pain and said that he thought he was being respectful by not disturbing her to introduce himself or ask her name. He said that he generally tried to work discreetly, from a distance, and put his camera down when he felt it might bother someone.

As the church vigil was a public event, Dunand didn't legally need to ask for Aline's permission. The question is ethically what does he have to do.

The debate on The Picture Show, much of it among photographers, is worth reading. Coincidentally, another post on the blog is about an iconic photo from the Vietnam War taken by Larry Burrows. Complicating the ethical question is one about recording the passions and feelings of events for the sake of history.

You might want to join the debate there, or pick it up here. There are genuine trade-offs and varying perceptions to consider.

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