Letter to the editor

John Long is chief photographer at The Hartford Courant. He is past president of the National Press Photographers Association.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 8 (November/December 1990), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


I am writing in response to an article in the October FineLine by Deni Elliott concerning the work of photojournalist J. Ross Baughman. In this article, (see “As life passes by“) Baughman is presented as believing that the highest good is served by remaining neutral in any situation, recording with his camera whatever tragedy happens before him regardless of the consequences for the people being photographed.

I have seen articles about Mr. Baughman for many years, and every time I have read about his philosophy, I have reacted immediately and vehemently. I am not sure how much of what he says is for effect and how much is actually how he works, but we have a categorically different view of the profession of photojournalism. I cannot see placing any human life in jeopardy so I can make photographs.

If I understand the article correctly, Baughman feels that if he places himself in a position as an impartial observer, he must remain an impartial observer at all costs or he will lose his credibility. The value of being able to report on events outweighs all other considerations and the greatest good will be served by reporting on these events, no matter how harmful to some individuals, so that the public will have a fair and accurate account of them.

Mr. Baughman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for photographs he made on a search and destroy mission in Rhodesia. There is no doubt that these photographs were powerful and effective journalism and that they told the world of the atrocities taking place in that country. He was criticized at that time, however, for not doing anything to try to stop the torture he was photographing. That he could have done much is doubtful anyway, but his expressed lack of desire to try at all was condemned.

In a similar famous case, Horst Faas and Michel Laurent won the Pulitzer in 1972 for photos of a street execution in Dacca and in their explanations issued later, they made it clear that they were completely unable to stop the mob. They also left the scene in the hopes that, without the cameras present to play to, the crowd would not go ahead with the killings. Only when they knew they were unable to alter the event and that their presence as photographers was having no effect did they return and photograph the scene.

This is the heart of the matter. In my mind, the first obligation is to follow my values as a human being. If I chose to place myself in a situation where harm is about to take place, there is no excuse for my letting it take place if I can stop it. My job is to observe life, but this does not relieve me of my obligation as a human being to stand up for what I believe is right. My presence makes me a participant whether I like it or not.

The article refers to several infamous cases where people burned themselves while cameras rolled. One of the cases Dr. Elliott mentions is the man who tried to commit suicide in Jacksonville, Alabama, while a television cameraman and a reporter watched. As a reaction to this very incident, the National Press Photographers Association decided some years ago to create its Humanitarian Award which is given to photographers who put their cameras down and help people in need. The organization feels a need to honor such conduct.

If I place myself in a situation in order to make photographs but find instead a need to help another person, it is my obligation to lay my camera down and help. My job (which is 8 hours a day) requires me to be fair and accurate. My humanity (which is 24 hours a day) requires me to be my brother’s keeper.