Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Making Choices

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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World

Nurse Valerie Martin’s patient was in her final moments. She died later that night.

Years ago when I worked for The Virginian-Pilot, I was given a news assignment. An elderly man had accidentally crashed his car through the window of a beauty shop. Several people were injured; the car pinned one woman against a wall. As I raised my camera, the pinned woman, her hair in curlers, wailed, “Please don’t take my photo, please don’t.” For a second I saw myself in her position, my picture splashed across the front page. I couldn’t do that to her; I lowered the camera. Next to me a TV cameraman began filming, and when I told him she didn’t want to be photographed, he said, “I’m just doing my job.” Later I took a picture of her being carried out of the shop. In it she wasn’t recognizable.

When I warned my boss about the image that would be on TV and told him that I purposely did not take that picture, I braced myself for a long, loud lecture about my failure as a photojournalist. But he said, “You are a human being. If taking that picture took away your humanity, it wasn’t worth it.” Ever since, those words have guided me through sensitive situations.

For my new book on Nursing I photographed a hospice nurse as she cared for an elderly woman in her final days. I was concerned about how the family of this dying woman might respond to my request to photograph during this stressful time.   Yet because of the nurse’s ability to dissipate fear and bring understanding of the dying woman’s situation I was accepted by the family and became part of the hospice process.

Valerie Martin reports the death of a patient.

The family trusted what I was doing—a trust that I was determined not to violate. After my second visit with this family, the elderly woman died.  Photographing the nurse completing the hospice care was an extraordinarily intense situation.  I knew I was photographing the aftermath of death as the nurse filled out forms, disposed of medicines and then—tenderly–prepared the woman for viewing, brushing her hair and cleaning her.  But I was “in the moment” and have almost no memories of actually taking the pictures.

The book was beautifully laid out.  Several stories, including the one of the hospice nurse, were played across several spreads.  Yet when I looked at the layout of the hospice nurse it was as if I was seeing the picture of the dead woman I had photographed for the first time.  The effect of it, displayed across two pages, stunned me. Though very strong, I felt the picture was not appropriate for the book.  The woman’s mouth was open.  Because her eyelids wouldn’t close, the nurse had put coins on her eyes.  In the picture, the dead woman seemed alone, the nurse sitting behind her, working in a seemingly impersonal manner on her computer.

The more I thought about it, the more this picture of a dead woman lying alone bothered me.  She could have been my neighbor. I asked to have the imaged removed. The managing editor and the designer, both men, balked at my request.  It was a great, powerful image, they said.  Why remove it?

Caregiver Sonia Mundle Smith contemplates the death of a woman she spent years caring for, while waiting for the hospice nurse to prepare the body and collect information needed to report the death.

Over time, and many hard lessons, I have learned to trust my instincts. I called the hospice nurse and described the picture to her. She thought it might be misconstrued if it were published.  I placed a similar call to the text editor on the book—a woman.  She responded much as the nurse did–that the picture was great but also seemed too invasive to the family.   I thought about it carefully.

Finally I decided the image had to go.  It was replaced by a solid but less powerful picture, showing the elderly woman while she was still alive.   I thought of my former boss’s words, “If it takes away your humanity…” I put it more simply; what if this was my mother?  Would I be offended?

This 16 year old is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Last spring I was photographing in a pediatric cancer ward. At the end of the day, I was in the room of a 16-year-old boy— the same age of my son. The boy was so polite and charming, and as he lay there taking his chemo treatment, I saw my own son. I took photos, but I didn’t stay long in his room. It upset me so badly.

I once asked a cancer nurse how she was able to cope with children so ill. She said that she avoided attending to children who were her own kid’s ages. I think that’s part of my own situation: I can maintain my professionalism until it involves a child who is the age of one of my kids or someone the age of my parents; then I have to walk away or at least think hard about what I want say. The other part is my awareness of the dignity of my subjects, and perhaps it’s those two elements that have helped me to gain access to people’s lives. I’ve heard from several people that they’re relieved when they meet me because, they say, I’m just like them, just like a regular person.

When I see news covered, I try to look beyond the photographs to see the humanity of the photojournalist who’s telling the story. I know people often have to make hard decisions rather quickly and often times with limited information, however, I tell students, “just because  you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  A camera in hand still means we need to think ethically and morally about what images we choose to take-and show.

One Response

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  1. Karen,
    your blog posts re both moving and thought provoking.
    It’s a kind of documentary I intended to pursue, having spent several weeks in an intensive care unit for a loved one and previously in a hospice for my mother. Both experiences meant dealing with death and suffering. In places which are a concentration of suffering.
    “You are a human being. If taking that picture took away your humanity, it wasn’t worth it.” This statement is so important. It has to do with respect. For those who suffer and die, and for those who mourn for them.

    Luca Alessandro Remotti

    January 8, 2011 at 11:59 am

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