Witnessing Conflict, Crime and Human Suffering — Using Your Camera or Lending a Hand to Help? The Moral Debate Over Photography & Real Life Historical Case Studies.

Photojournalism, specifically in conflict ridden landscapes, throughout history, has been looked at as both an act of heroism, and has also been treated with suspicion, in particular towards the photographer capturing the image. Many people who praise these photojournalists point out that without exposing these events to the rest of the world, it would be too easy for the world to ignore and shrug off the events through word of mouth alone. Critics, however, believe that the photographer is breaking standards of morality by capturing people’s deaths and suffering on camera and not trying to intervene to help prevent murder, death or suicide from happening instead.

After analyzing a variety of opinions and arguments on some of the most impactful photojournalists in modern history, it seems that condemning these photographers for taking the shot instead of lending a hand can be unreasonable, especially when one does not see the full picture or surroundings of the photographer themselves behind the lens. I may be biased in this thinking, admittedly, because I am an avid travel photographer, as well as a student of Communications (Broadcasting & Film), so it’s important to realize the personal background in which I bring to this debate.

Of course, video documentation of human suffering is not limited to war zones, and is just as powerful on an everyday level outside of everyone’s homes. In 2020 alone most of the world witnessed the power of documenting human rights abuses on camera and sharing it with the world via social media, such as the case of Darnella Frazier and her sharing of her video of the murder of George Floyd. The video of course led to a worldwide awakening in regards to police brutality and systemic racism, and the largest series of protests for social justice in the United States ensued afterwards throughout the rest of the year.

Historically, before the existence of social media, photos and videos changed the minds of people around the world and acted as a window to see through into faraway agony and catastrophes. The text from Lesak, “How the Vulture and the Little Girl Ultimately led to the Death of Kevin Carter”, gives insight into the grey areas of being a photographer or journalist covering a community that is experiencing a human tragedy. The text focuses on the South-African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, who became world renowned for the window he was able to provide for the rest of the world, to witness the tragic nature of the famine in Sudan.

Kevin Carter’s most famous image is the heartbreaking shot known as “Vulture and the Little Girl”, and this photograph had people around the world take notice of the reality in Sudan. Seeing a little girl dying of starvation alone in a field, as a predatory and watchful vulture sits close behind her, made people angry, not just at the situation in Sudan, but at Kevin Carter, the one who brought this issue to light, as well. There was plenty of discord that occurred surrounding the issue of taking a photograph of human suffering, instead of helping or aiding those individuals depicted in the image (Lesak, 2015).

The vulture and the little girl. Kevin Carter (1960–1994), 1993, The vulture and the little girl. 0*bxl9lsv5VG6MpbBs.jpg (800×533) (medium.com)

There is an explanation in the text, however, of how this idea of being able to assist the starving girl was never an option for Carter, due to armed gunmen who prevented him from being able to safely do so. Ultimately, Carter gained massive exposure from his photographs in Sudan, including winning the prestigious Pulitzer prize and was often interviewed on camera and broadcasted on TV. Despite the debate around his actions in Sudan from the public, Carter’s photographs were responsible for the general public in the international community gaining awareness of the harsh realities of the famine in Sudan. Without his photos, there might not have been calls for intervention or aid to the country from around the world. Carter’s life ended in tragedy, due to suicide (Lesak, 2015).

This was the result of the burden of guilt over one of his photojournalist friends dying, as well as seeing real human beings die behind the lens of his camera. It also had to do with losing precious photography film from another trip in Africa he had embarked on. The events of Kevin Carter’s life and career has created the question surrounding the morality and ethics surrounding photojournalists capturing images of those in pain and or dying, and whether these individuals in the position to take these images should try to physically help people, instead of staying back and documenting the event on camera (Lesak, 2015).

According to Wade, in the article, “The ‘living room war’ in the escalation period: Romance, irony, and the narrative ambivalence of tragedy in Vietnam War era photojournalism”, there is a claim made that in the case of the Vietnam War, horrifying photographs that came out of the conflict were not all critical of the war, but also played into the narrative of those who thought the invasion was justifiable, and that these images were even romanticized by supporters of the war (Wade, p. 313). The main argument in this article is that when photos depicting such controversial events are vague and unclear, a polarization of opinions can occur for viewers of the image. Viewpoints that are entirely incompatible and opposite to each other from an audience of viewers can lead to equally strong feelings of support or rejection of the issue surrounding a conflict (Wade, p. 314).

First Cavalry Division medic Thomas Cole tends to an unidentified soldier in a trench during battle at An Thi in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War. Henri Huet, (1927–1971), 1966, 8C9400531-pb-131016-vietnam-02.fit-760w.jpg (760×933) (s-nbcnews.com)

However, the author of the text also argues that in the case of documentarians of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II, the images of these atrocities were able to successfully convince people of the reality of the situation, but also to push people to want to never allow such a horrifying display of evil and cruelty happen again. In contrast with the Vietnam War, due to this war having as equally strong supporters as it had protestors, the photographs that came out of the conflict were just not brutally honest or appalling enough to push it to the same level as that of the public reaction to the Holocaust (Wade, p. 315).

Perhaps this is also to do with the fact that many photos depicted the American soldiers’ struggle and pain, which indirectly celebrated the human sacrifice of these men and reconfirmed the opinions of the supporters of the war (Wade, p. 314). Essentially, the question here appears to be, should photographers insert themselves even more into these acts of tragedy to expose the most brutal realities, in order to effect actual change? Is it possibly unethical to try to capture images in any other way other than as neutral as possible? (Wade, 2015)

In the article “Bearing Witness and the Limits of war Photojournalism: Ron Haviv in Bijeljina”, from Martin and Doubt, explains the very complicated nature of expecting a photographer to be able to capture the most brutal acts in a conflict without running the risk of being criticized for the exact same thing. This idea runs quite parallel to the text on Kevin Carter, and how the decisions a photographer must make when faced with the capture of shocking moments will always land praisers and critics. In this text, the authors detail the story of Ron Haviv, who moved alongside a paramilitary militia in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and documented the slaughter that they committed to innocent civilians, mostly Muslim individuals, in the streets (Lukk & Doubt, pp. 630). Many of his photographs are brutally realistic and very up close and personal to the victims of these crimes (Lukk & Doubt, pp. 634).

Blood and Honey. Ron Haviv, (1965), 1992, Blood and Honey. RH-BH02.JPG (1080×724) (viiphoto.com)

However, despite these images being incredibly honest, to the point of being traumatizing and disturbing, and very effective in exposing the crimes to the rest of the world, it still was not enough to bring about immediate universal concern towards these acts of terror (Lukk & Doubt, pp. 635). The text from Martin and Doubt is effective in appearing to remove biases surrounding the discussion and by acknowledging that the best a photographer can do in this situation is capture what is in front of them and act as a neutral observer who is separate from the events unfolding in front of them (Lukk & Doubt, 2015).

In reality though, could this really always be the best thing to do in a time when saving another human being, if it required you to physically insert yourself into the situation, becomes a possibility? For almost every image recorded there is a human being behind the lens of the instrument who took the photo. For human beings, the chance of saving one human being, even if it means potentially losing the opportunity to expose the greater impact of the world becoming aware of the crime or conflict at hand might actually be the most subjectively heroic thing a person could do in the moment. It is a topic to be debated endlessly, and one that is very difficult to argue strongly for on either side of the coin without trying your best to put yourself in the photographer’s shoes, and within the context of the scene that they were involved in, as a living, breathing human being, whether a neutral observer or not.

Of course, not all situations are safe to intervene and could jeopardize the safety of everyone in the vicinity, and there are clearly enough examples throughout history and modern times that show the incredible power of documenting crime in order to convince the public of societal ills and implement justice and change. The issue isn’t a straightforward one from an objective point of view, which is the same as the decision one has to make in the heat of moment when shock and emotions run high, and an incomprehensible event plays out in front of one’s eyes.


Lesak, Denis, (2015), How the Vulture and the Little Girl Ultimately led to the Death of Kevin Carter, How the Vulture and the Little Girl Ultimately led to the Death of Kevin Carter | by Denis Lesak | Medium

Lukk, Martin, Doubt, Keith, (2015), Bearing Witness and the Limits of War Photojournalism: Ron Haviv in Bijeljina, Vol. 37, Iss. 3, 629–636, 827–828, Bearing Witness and the Limits of War Photojournalism: Ron Haviv in Bijeljina — ProQuest (mtroyal.ca)

Wade, Patrick (2015), The ‘living room war’ in the escalation period: Romance, irony, and the narrative ambivalence of tragedy in Vietnam War era photojournalism, (312–328), The ‘living room war’ in the escalation period: Romance, irony, and the narrative ambivalence of tragedy in Vietnam War era photojournalism (mtroyal.ca)




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