If I Were Suffering, Would You Take a Picture?


Saturday night while heading back home on El Camino, we heard a squad car coming up behind us so I pulled over and it zipped past swiftly. I commented on how fast it was going because normally they don’t seem to be going terribly fast when I’ve had to pull over in the past. A couple of blocks up ahead it became clearer why. At the intersection of El Camino and Escuela we noticed a situation that was clearly recent. There were already a couple police cars there, but there was also still a man lying on the road next to a car and no ambulance yet in sight.


After arriving home we decided to walk down the street to see what had happened. By the time we got there, there were two firetrucks, an ambulance, and many more squad cars. The man was situated in the ambulance and they took off with the sirens blaring not long after we arrived. We never found out what happened, but we had a couple of theories including the man being struck while crossing the street against the light or feeling ill (perhaps having a heart attack) while driving, stopping the car in the road, opening the door and collapsing. The police were interviewing two people on the median near where the man was, but it was not clear if they were just witnesses or if the car belonged to them.


On the way to the scene we were debating whether it was ethical to take pictures. I feel pretty strongly that it is not unethical to take pictures of the scene as a whole, but what about the person who has been injured? Since he was already in the ambulance I didn’t have to make the decision, but if he weren’t, what would I have done? Do you think it’s ok to take photos of someone who has been injured without their consent? If so, why? What if you plan to post them on the internet? Please respond if you have an opinion, I’m interested in diverse opinions and rationale. I’d like to know reasons, for or against it, that I likely haven’t considered.


6 thoughts on “If I Were Suffering, Would You Take a Picture?

  1. I would likely take pictures if:
    1. I knew the person (in case they required photo evidence)
    2. I believed it would be in the person’s favor to have those photos (i.e. legal action)
    3. there were no person pics, just aspects of the scene that were compelling to warrant a memory of such event, which is really quite rare

    I don’t think I’ve ever taken pictures of a scene of a crime where someone’s been injured. I’ve taken pictures of J’s car when the window was smashed; I’ve taken pictures of graffiti; I’ve taken pictures of odd things people have done to public spaces; but never personal or bodily injury. It feels like an invasion of space that is beyond my comfort level.

  2. I would never photograph a scene of someone else’s misery because I feel like, for the love of god, can a person have a freaking moment without having a camera pointed at them?

    Lately I feel like we as individuals are really losing our boundaries of privacy, in that, now that good, portable cameras are accessible to nearly everyone, nobody seems to think twice about photographing anything they see, without regards or consideration to the subject. On more than one specific occasion recently, for instance, I have been in public places and just felt trapped and oppressed by all of the cameras around me. I’ve been in situations where people blatantly photographed me or the people I was with because of something I was doing or because there was a cute baby present, without asking permission or even really aknowleging that I/we were human people and not something to get a cool shot of, like a sculpture or a bridge or something.

    Even more distressing than this, in some ways, is the fact that cameras are going off EVERYWHERE and I feel I’m CONSTANTLY caught in the crossfire. Yes, this feeling is amped up for me because I’ve been in tourist-laden Europe for the past two months, but this isn’t soley a vacationer issue. Every time I go out I feel like I get caught in somebody’s photo of something and you know–maybe I really did not feel like being captured on film that day. I think the advent of affordable technology is great for encouraging normal people to have a hand at what used to be an expensive art form, but I feel there is a real lack of responsibility that a lot of people are using it with. Without walking around with a paper bag over ones head to keep oneself anonymous, there’s really no way to control what other people do. I feel like we’ve lost the right to our own bodies and images in a very upsetting way.

    And so, because of this, I would never, EVER photograph the scene of someone else’s accident without being asked to by the persons involved. I don’t like strangers having control of my image in the best of circumstances, I would certainly not want a stranger to be privy to my suffering, so I feel like that is a good time to leave them alone.

  3. I would want someone to take pictures of me if the situation was reversed so long as I got coppies and decided what to do with them or was at least consulted first. I wish I had more pictures of injuries I have had in the past. I have some, but not enough. I would have no qualms about taking pictures of someone, but if they asked me to stop, I would.

  4. I don’t think there’s anything magical about cameras or the internet. If something happens in public, it’s public and if you don’t feel bad about gawking, you shouldn’t feel bad about snapping pictures or visiting http://www.worldsgruesomestcrashscenes.com or anything like it. I personally don’t find accidents all that interesting so I would never bother to stop and look, let alone stap photos. My reaction to crash scenes is to some degree an exaggerated reaction to how fascinating other people find them for no obvious reason; I generally try to get past them and move on as quickly as possible.

    It’s also worth noting that this just isn’t a kind of privacy I care about at all. We’re all human and we all have bodies and we all have the same basic needs and frailties. The only thing hiding those truths gets you is humiliation and loss of control.

  5. My immediate instinct was to say “no, never.” I tend to feel really self-conscious about invading other people’s space/privacy, probably more than I am about others invading mine. I even felt weird today when I took a picture of a statue and a stranger’s head ended up in the shot (irrational on my part? maybe).

    I can’t say I’ve personally ever felt oppressed by cameras in public spaces as Sadie has, but I don’t feel right about the “no expectation of privacy” thing, either. For example, I don’t think one can expect to never wind up as an incidental part of a tourist photo, but I really dislike the assumption that it’s okay to make a stranger the focus of a photo in public without asking him/her first.

    It’s not because I think a camera has magic powers or that all photographers’ motives are questionable, but rather because I know that some people are uncomfortable being photographed in certain situations. Do they have irrational reasons for that? Maybe, but it’s not for me to decide. Likewise, some people might not mind being photographed but have reasons (or just a personal preference) to control what images of them are broadcast on the internet. I strongly believe in respecting people’s self-determination in that area, as well.

    All that being said, I read Tanya’s exceptions above and felt that those are valid, but it would probably make sense to immediately let the person know, if possible, so that they can benefit from your picture if that was your intent.

    Finally, I would have no qualms about taking pictures of an event (as you did above) where no individual easily stands out.

  6. So a few issues:

    Taking a picture of a scene.
    Taking a picture of individuals.

    Regarding 1, scenes, like the one you witnessed should be freely documented. Although your attempt might not be photojournalism, by uploading it, tagging it, blogging about it, you’ve made it known that something has happened that might be of concern to others. For example, if I saw a picture like this of a scene near my house, I would see that as informative. Perhaps it makes me learn about the incident further, perhaps it makes me drive more cautiously, whatever. Information is information.

    Regarding 2. If I was suffering the last thing I care about is being observed. In fact it may be to my advantage depending on the circumstances.

    I think the comments about being photographed in public are worthy of discussion, but are tangental to this posts question. Katie B, you seem to imply (and I agree) that not only is it benefical to document things amateurly, it may even be beneficial.

    With all things where privacy is a concern, there are gray areas. A papperazi is unacceptable, but some degree of self-directed photojournalism is useful.

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