When Fabienne Cherisma was shot and killed by a police officer for looting in the aftermath of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake of 2010, Nathan Weber was there to capture the scene on camera, as seen in January’s This Picture selection. But Weber’s photograph shows us an event that seems tragic on more than one level, fanning the flames of an old controversy: When should a documentary photographer put down the camera and lend a helping hand?
In his own commissioned response to this photograph, Fred Ritchin challenges the trope of the photographer-as-vulture, a sensation-seeker who tries to make a buck on someone else’s misfortune. Maybe the real issue, Ritchin argues, is the way the photograph is being used. When a single photographic moment is made to stand in for an event of lasting duration, we lose the benefit of the full story, the before-and-after that brackets every newsworthy event. And, perhaps unfairly, that single and oft-heralded decisive moment gets blown out of proportion as a result. Given the possibilities of the digital environment, it is now easier than ever to provide additional context to the interested reader. But the impact of the single iconic photograph under a front-page headline – whether in print or online – is undeniable. It’s a useful tool for selling a story. And since the photographer often has little control over how his or her image is placed in that story, is the entire news media industry at fault for making a single image stand in for a nuanced event? Or do we, as digitally-savvy readers, have a responsibility to seek out the relevant context and build a fuller picture for ourselves?