Crossing the line

The other day, I hinted at a topic that’s been on my mind lately. Probably because my son and I visited the Newseum recently and spent some time looking at all the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos.

I should warn you that this could be depressing. There are some tough images in this post.

One of the Pulitzer photographs was of a dying child in Sudan with a vulture waiting in the background. (You can see the image here.) It was awful, because you knew that vulture was going to feed soon. Alongside the photo, the photographer’s words (paraphrased): “I wish I’d picked up the child.” Evidently, he was worried about disease. But was winning the Pulitzer worth being haunted for the rest of your life? What I’ve since learned is that the photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide shortly after winning the prize.


A month or so ago, my husband and I happened on an estate sale in a Georgetown neighborhood of beautiful old homes. I’d always wanted to see what one of these places looked like, and had never been to an estate sale before. There were lots of other people there, sifting through all kinds of stuff. The architecture was even more amazing than I expected, and I started taking pictures. The plaster was peeling in many places, but you could see that the bones of the place were magnificent.

We went upstairs and found more beautiful architecture. There was even a balcony overlooking the park across the street. Oh, to have the money to completely restore a gem like this! I took this photo of an antique bedstead:

(Shot on an iPhone with the Pic Grunger app) 

 Then I turned around and saw the closet. Old clothes were still hanging there, as if the owners had just put them away. Suddenly I felt uneasy. I was no longer a curious photographer and architecture buff, I was a voyeur. For me, it was crossing a line I didn’t want to cross. A family had lost one of its members, and their presence hadn’t yet been erased.

I put my phone away and told my husband I wanted to leave. I will never take photos at an estate sale again. And I’ll never be a photojournalist taking pictures of a woman as she falls to her death from a fire (another Pulitzer winner; the child survived):

photo by Stanley Forman

The prize just wouldn’t be worth it to me.

I’m fairly comfortable with posting the photo of the bedstead, probably because it’s tightly cropped, and disguised with the iPhone app. Maybe I did that subconsciously? I deleted all the other shots.

Don’t get me wrong–I respect photojournalists a great deal.  I just wish we could have our consciousness raised without such graphic and/or invasive depictions. I truly hope the “vulture shot” helped the situation in Sudan. But how did the “firescape” photo help anyone? Where is the societal gain? Was a line crossed?

In an interview, Stanely Forman stated that people checked their fire escapes after his photo was published, and he didn’t regret the shot. Forman thought a rescue was going to happen–does that make it OK? As for me, I’m wondering how the family of the deceased woman feels.

About pearlsandprose

Photography. With a little life thrown in.
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21 Responses to Crossing the line

  1. mindymilburn says:

    I don’t even have to click on the link of the photo of the child, I have seen it before and it brought me to tears. I couldn’t be a photojournalist because I couldn’t stop myself from intervening. I respect the work that they do and I think it is important. Without some of the disturbing photos you have talked about we would never really understand some of the horrible situations going on around the world. It is one thing to hear about it, quite another to see it. All I know is that I couldn’t do it.

    The photo that you took was beautiful and I don’t think of you as being a voyeur, the passing of a loved one is horrible and sad but in a sense you are keeping the memory of this families home alive by sharing the story with us.

    • Mindy, thank you. I mulled over this post for two days and wasn’t sure if I should publish it. I try to keep the tone of this blog on the light side, but once in a while something really hits me over the head. Sometimes I share, sometimes I don’t. I guess that’s another line I contemplate.

  2. Caroline says:

    It’s a good thing, you chose to post it. Unfortunately there is beauty and ugliness in this world at the same time. I agree with Mindy that you weren’t being a voyeur but there sure is a thin line… I didn’t click on the photo but I also think I saw it before. I can’t make up my mind whether I think it is good or not to shoot photos like that. Or the one of the woman falling to her death. I wonder why Carter committed sucide. Was it really linked to taking the photo? He must have been guilt-ridden. What would we have done? I have a hard time imagining I wouldn’t have picked up the child, to not pick it up but still publish the photo and win a prize is a fatal combination, I suppose.

    • According to Time Magazine, Carter’s suicide note included this:

      “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . ”

      Carter had also spent quite a bit of time photographing atrocities in his native South Africa, so it could have been a cumulative effect. He also had money problems.

      I can’t imagine leaving the child either.

  3. S.P. says:

    A very thought provoking post. I did not need to see the photo of the child, my imagination is vivid enough.
    Your shot of the bed is quite beautiful though, as are so many of your other photographs.
    You are obviously much more comfortable shooting the beautiful side of life and who can blame you?!

    Best wishes for the New Year,

  4. bonniegunkel says:

    OK, I apparently just crawled out from under a rock that I’ve been hiding under for the past 41 years, because I have never seen any photos like the ones you posted, ever. So thank you, for posting them so I could become more educated, and thank you for having the guts to post it, because that just makes you super cool. I hope I don’t sound strange, but I really like your photo. It’s very calming to me for some reason. But I can see how it would make you feel like you were intruding as well. But I agree with Mindy and Caroline as well, because we all need to be reminded of the sadness that is right under our nose.

    • Hi, Bonnie, and welcome! Don’t feel bad–I hadn’t seen a LOT of the Pulitzer-winning photos before, including the “vulture” shot. And I thought I was pretty up on that stuff.

      I really appreciate the feedback, because I was very torn on whether to post this or not. Thanks too for the comment about my photo. It’s beginning to grow on me, but I was creeped out for quite a while. It will be a good reminder for me to be more aware.

  5. Lady Jennie says:

    I think I would be ok with the fire-escape picture because there was nothing he could do, but the child in Sudan? I would have carried the child the one kilometer even if I had to shoot the picture first.

    • I don’t think I could take the picture. No, I could not.

      My feeling on the firescape photo is that if both had survived, they should run the photo. If one or both died, no. It was an editor’s call, and the lure of Pulitzer is so strong.

  6. Pingback: Crossing the line (via Pearls & Prose) « Cheryl Andrews

  7. jacquelincangro says:

    I’ve seen that photo of the vulture before and just thinking about it brings a lump in my throat. I understand that journalists (writers and photographers) don’t want to get involved with their subjects in order to remain unbiased, but sometimes I just want to say, Put down the camera! Though I know the work that so many photojournalists do helps bring awareness of other cultures and issues from around the globe in a way that only pictures can.

  8. 4myskin says:

    I don’t know how someone could take those pictures, and not drop the camera immediately after and try to help. It’s just heartbreaking! 😦

  9. RHM says:

    Interesting topic. thoughtful comments. At the moment , such “Reality” is heavy on my mind. I am texting from a hospital bed. Three weeks ago I was pulled back from the edge of death by a fast thinking and acting medical team. Seven days ago a dear friend sucummed to death. Four days ago I had a mini-stroke; obviously and thankfully I survived. . . To do what? I think, among other things, to gather understanding. Which requires exposure to things we would often rather avoid. Avoidance proceedure is ground into our domesticated existance by generally well meaning nurturers conditioned as the three chimps to see/hear/do no evil. . .
    OK! Enough already! Summary: One size doesn’t fit all. To each their own timidity or courage. We learn from each other. Take the picture! Write your prose. And don’t expect everyone will ‘love’ them. BUT when something wins a ‘prize’ try and understand “Why?”

    • Thank you for commenting. I think our culture is so intent on being positive, if you bring up a painful subject you’re called “Debbie Downer” and worse. I’m a fairly upbeat person, but I try to see everything unflinchingly. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.

      I wish you a quick and full recovery. Please feel free to drop by again.

      • RHM says:

        Thanks for your get-well. It worked! I’m visiting again 🙂
        Yes, we are encouraged to be Positive. A good state of being when expressed honestly with some understanding of the circumstances of the issue(s) of concern. . .
        “The line” can be a challenge. Does it confine? Or does it flex? It seems, in many cases, to on one hand, divide and encourage prejudice — Tea party like.
        On the other hand it might invite good creative thinking and solution seekers to gather and energize — proactive response??

      • I’m so happy to hear it! I hope your recovery continues to go well.

        There are so many lines, and I agree, they are challenging. I just hope the individuals facing them think carefully before acting.

  10. Rich says:

    Very thoughtful, Carole. As was said, there’s beauty and ugliness in the world. No need to hide that.

  11. I know you posted this awhile ago, but my work had the picture of the child from Sudan blocked, and I finally remembered to come back and look.

    So heartbreaking…. I really try not to judge until I’ve walked in the same shoes, but sometimes it’s hard. I understand that there are a lot of horrific diseases in Africa, but it’s a child….

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