The Columbia Journalism Review had an interesting piece Thursday about various approaches photojournalists took to photograph the Amish while covering the murder-suicide in Pennsylvania.Most of the photographers told of showing a certain amount of restraint, as photography is not acceptable to the Amish faith.
As I read that piece, I thought back to September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attack, every Tribune photographer was sent out to photographer. Everyone but me. My then-editor told me, “Looks like you’ll just have a slow day in the lab today.” Of course, I wasn’t going to sit around and relax. I went out to find a photo.
I went to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City. The church was holding a prayer service, opening its doors for people to come mourn for the as-yet-unknown number of victims at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. This was early in the afternoon of the attacks, and I can’t remember if Orrin Hatch had leaked that it was bin Laden yet.
It was a very uncertain time, and the church was filled with people who were in shock, confused, and, frankly, terrified. Being a photographer in this situation can be very difficult. The last thing you want to do is further upset people.
From the spot where I was allowed to be in, I wasn’t seeing the deep emotion I was after. The shots just weren’t there. Then a woman walked in and sat a couple rows behind me. She was flat-out bawling. Tears were streaming down her face. I was staring at an award-winning photograph waiting to be taken. It would clearly lead off my portfolio for the year. I quickly checked my camera settings and focus, then looked to her. I didn’t feel right taking her picture without her knowing I was there. She was too vulnerable.
After a moment she looked up through her tears. I made a gesture to the camera and then to her, asking permission non-verbally. She shook her head no, and was clearly distressed. I gestured back that I understood, and then DID NOT take the amazing, award-winning photograph that was right in front of me.
For the rest of the day I rushed around town looking for some kind of reaction to the terrorist attacks. Later that evening I found a group of students praying at the University of Utah. It was a nice moment, and one of those photographs made the paper.
But for weeks I thought about the woman in tears. Did I make the right decision? Should I have made the photograph even without her permission? I mean, this was history, right? I continually re-played the moment and thought about the decision I had made. One thing I realized, I had no idea if this woman was crying about 9/11; She could have been going through any number of personal issues. But I was still unsettled about it.
Weeks later I was talking to another Tribune photographer about everything that was happening in the wake of 9/11. I built up my courage and told the story of the photo I didn’t take. To my astonishment, rather than pitying me, my colleague had an identical story from the same day. He also had put down the camera on 9/11 while staring at a similarly emotional moment out of respect for the wishes of his subject. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone in putting someone’s well-being ahead of my portfolio.
To be perfectly clear, if I had been photographing on that day in New York City or Washington, I would have shot the photo without hesitation. That was history, and such an important story to tell. I feel the news value of the situation would have outweighed the intrusion had I been covering the physical impact of the event.
Photographing the impact in faraway Utah, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Maybe I was wrong, but this was different. Even without the photo I didn’t take, the story of 9/11’s impact on Utah was well told in pictures by me and many others.
September 11, 2001. A prayer for the dead, University of Utah.
Here’s the link to the CJR story on photographing the Amish.