Shoot first. Ask questions later
“I have photographed things and, after I did, thought that they crossed the line a little, so I didn’t send them in. I am lucky in that I work for a broadsheet with strong ethical values. If I worked for a tabloid like the New York Post, they may have a different set of values.”
Sometimes a photographer’s presence can affect a situation. Clare Keogh, a Cork-based photographer who has worked extensively in the developing world, once took pictures of a family in Argentina with an alcoholic father. He tried to arrange the photographs and was then aggressive to his children, who became extremely tense. Keogh says she continued to shoot but, in hindsight, should have stopped and returned later, when the father was out.
She was 22 at the time and relatively inexperienced. “Photographers have to make these moral decisions in fractions of seconds, and those decisions can be important in terms of evidence later,” she says.
“I remember taking a photo in Cork of a family member coming out of an inquest into a tragic death. She was crying, and I kept shooting. I was taking pictures of the tears without really seeing them. When I got home and processed the images, I only then realised how upset she had been. That stayed with me.”
Noel Gavin, another experienced photographer who has worked overseas on many occasions, says he and every photographer he knows would intervene if necessary. “Say, for example, I saw a man standing in the path of the Luas,” he says. “The last thing I would be thinking is that I’m going to win photographer of the year if I get this picture. It is very clear in my mind: if you are the only one who could help in a situation where life is in danger, you put the camera down and try and help.”
Gavin highlights a photograph he took in Somalia in 1992, when he and his colleague Liam Burke accompanied President Mary Robinson on her visit there. “We saw people dying in front of us,” Gavin says. “Your natural instinct is to put the camera down, but we didn’t have food or water to give them, and there were aid agencies there.
“The camera protects you sometimes. I was taking the picture of an eight-year-old child, and Liam told me to put the camera down for a minute. I did and looked at this child, called Abdi Hussein, and I saw him for the first time as an eight-year-old, sitting there, who was most likely going to die within a few days.
“I still get emotional thinking about that picture, and it’s because I paused to put down the camera.”