On the night of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a woman named Aline Marie attended a prayer vigil at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was packed with local residents and the media. After about 45 minutes, Marie saw the statue of Mary and knelt down to pray.
“I sat there in a moment of devastation with my hands in prayer pose asking for peace and healing in the hearts of men,” she recalls. “I was having such a strong moment and my heart was open, and I started to cry.”
Her mood changed abruptly, she says, when “all of a sudden I hear ‘clickclickclickclickclick’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal.”
What particularly troubles her, she says, is “no one came up to me and said ‘Hi, I’m from this paper and I took your photograph.’ No one introduced themselves. I felt violated. And yes, it was a lovely photograph, but there is a sense of privacy in a moment like that, and they didn’t ask.”
On the other end of the camera was AFP photographer Emmanuel Dunand. Based in New York, he had arrived in Newtown that day. He says he was overwhelmed by the assignment of having to photograph residents during such extreme grief.
“I have two kids,” he told me. “It’s the type of story you never want to cover, ever, and being a dad … all you want to do is put down flowers, you don’t want to take photos.”
But, he said, it was his job to make photos to help tell the story to the world, and in the midst of so much raw emotion, he tried to be discreet with his camera. If he sensed that someone was bothered by the camera, he simply put it down.
The photograph was taken Dec. 14. Five days later, NPR used it to illustrate a story with the headline, Newtown Tragedy: Would A Good God Allow Such Evil?
At the time, NPR didn’t know the woman’s name. The caption information transmitted with the image didn’t contain it. Then, on Dec. 30, Aline Marie sent us a message via Facebook, identifying herself as a yoga teacher and an artist, and the subject of the photograph.
“I wanted you to know that although the image used for this article was beautiful and caught me in a personal powerful moment of tears,” she wrote, “no one asked my permission to post this. I’m not asking you to take the photo down, nor am I offended. However, I would like to make a point about responsible journalism, it would have been nice if someone could have asked my permission.”
I called Marie to talk with her more about her experience being photographed that night, then later talked to Dunand, the photographer. He says when he took Marie’s photo, he knew she was suffering, but that he simply didn’t want to bother her. He thought that leaving her alone was the most respectful thing to do.
Dunand said the AFP does not have a policy requiring photographers to ask for subject’s names when they are photographed in public places.
That is unfortunate, says Kenny Irby, senior faculty at The Poynter Institute. Irby says there are two benefits when photographers introduce themselves and interact with their subjects. One is that they can obtain accurate caption information — which ultimately adds more meaning, value and credibility to the photo for the reader. The other is that it can make the experience of being photographed more rewarding for the subject — even in a moment of extreme grief.
As for Marie, she says she understands that the photographer was just doing his job, but on a night when she felt so much despair, she simply wanted to feel a connection with the people around her.
“I understand the poignancy of capturing a moment,” she says. “Photography is incredibly powerful when used appropriately, and all I am saying is, how about a little respect? Say who you are and get out of the bushes.”
What are your thoughts? Should photographers interact with their subjects in moments of grief, or is it more respectful to leave them alone?