Of life and death

Photos capture woman’s last moments

The drowning of an emotionally-troubled woman created questions for a newspaper and the photographer who recorded the event.

By Julie Kredens, staff writer

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1991), p. 3.

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 thought I’d be photographing a rescue. Instead, I photographed a drowning.”

On December 3, Lawrence (MA) Eagle-Tribune photographer Marc Halevi had gone to the shores of Plum Island to get shots of the stormy seas and the highest tides in 60 years. He ended up with a powerful collection of images recording the last moments of a woman’s life — and the Eagle-Tribune ended up with difficult decisions.

How should these photos of the death of an obviously disturbed woman be played? The victim had been drinking heavily that morning, according to witnesses at the beach, and saying things such as “let the ocean take me.”

Publishing the photos would undoubtedly raise the question: Why didn’t the photographer jump in to try to save a drowning woman?

When Halevi first saw the woman she was standing on a sand bank dangerously near the stormy ocean. He snapped a picture, liking the idea of having a person in his shot. Seconds later as he was looking through his viewfinder, he saw a wave crash against the embankment on which she was standing, knocking down the sand and pulling the woman into the water.

Instinctively, Halevi snapped a photograph moments after she fell. He said he then shouted to nearby rescuers, who were already on the island because of the stormy weather conditions.

“Rather than do it myself,” said Halevi, “I just made this immediate decision that (these people) would be better than I (at rescuing her).”

But because the sea was so rough, even a trained rescue team was unsuccessful. Halevi captured her futile attempt to reach a rescuer’s hand. Her body washed ashore three hours later.

Some news accounts labeled the death a suicide, but Halevi said his camera recorded a different story. “She definitely did not jump in, nor did she walk in,” Halevi said, “but I think by being near the edge, she was doing something that could be construed as suicidal.”

The newspaper never called the death a suicide. It did refer to the drowning of a “troubled woman” and quoted her neighbors as saying the victim had talked about suicide in the past.

Since it wasn’t suicide, in their opinion, city editor Alan White said there was never any question about whether to use the photographs but how.

“She did try to get out,” White said, and the power of the storm and the heroics of those who tried to save her made the incident a “story that needed to be told.”

Drownings of people during these weather conditions are not uncommon, White said. “People go down to the beach to see this spectacle and some of them don’t come back.” White said seven people drowned last year.

White said they also decided early on to explain in a sidebar piece the photographer’s involvement and his attempt to get help. In the cutline for the photo of the woman floating on her back, the Tribune also made a point of explaining that the shot was taken with a telephoto lens from fifty feet away to dispel the impression given by the photo that Halevi was within arm’s length of the victim.

Eagle-Tribune editor Dan Warner was also concerned the photo of the woman with the raised cigarette and bottle might not give an accurate story.

“She looks like she’s not struggling and she’s just floating away,” said White. “It looks like Ophelia’s mad scene — holding a bottle of beer.”

Halevi believes she was simply in a state of shock and said moments later she was struggling for her life.

Still shaken by the incident, Halevi wonders if it would have made a difference had he not taken the photograph when she slid into the water.

“One of the things that I have real problems with and I haven’t really resolved . . . perhaps, if I hadn’t taken the five or ten seconds, if I hadn’t responded to my instincts to first take the shot, perhaps that time would have (made) the difference between life and death.”

But White believes Halevi made the right call. “There were professional rescuers there,” White says, “They were trained . . . and had the equipment.”