Friday, June 20, 2014

A look at the 'photojournalism' argument

So I've been seeing lots of arguments to justify photographing of a little girl who subsequently died from injuries in a tornado, and marketing of that photo.  Virtually all of them have called attention to other famous shocking images shot by photojournalists and published widely - an RVN army officer executing a Vietcong prisoner, or the firefighter holding a child he'd recovered from the rubble of the OKC bombing [who later died], and so on.

In general, photojournalists believe they have an obligation to record the truth of what they see, without regard to how others might feel about their photographs.  To me at least, this is especially so when the truth about a situation is not well-known (starving children in some far-off national civil war, for instance), or even being suppressed (as in many goings-on in Vietnam and other wars).  Heartbreaking images of victims of some sort of illegal or horrific activity convey the real-world consequences of those poorly-known or nefarious situations.  They can galvanize efforts to pull back either the shroud of cover-up or the shroud of ignorance.  I get that, and support it wholeheartedly.  I think if put in the sort of situation where unreported or unethical activity was going in front of me, I'd attempt to record for all to see what is not known.  I wouldn't deliberately seek out such a situation - I leave that for those who have the stomach for it.

But where is the widespread ignorance of the fatal consequences often associated with violent tornadoes?  What government agency is flooding the media with claims that tornadoes do no harm to anyone?  Yes, a photojournalist might be compelled to take such an image and it might be within the boundaries of photojournalism's ethics, but is that image needed to right some wrong, or to reveal something heretofore unknown?  What useful purpose was served by publishing that image?  A photojournalist made some money.  A public medium presented it as "news".   Anything else?

From a purely technical viewpoint, shooting and marketing the image is likely not illegal in any way.  Nevertheless, how does seeing the image make you feel?  Did you previously think tornadoes killed people in nice, neat ways?  Were you unaware of the threat from tornadoes?  Were you misled about tornado hazards by someone or some agency?  I'm pretty confident most people don't want to think about what tornadoes do to humans, so perhaps there's at least some reason to reveal the true horror of it.  Facing its reality might induce some positive action.  But as a viewer of the image, does it make you feel it was the right thing to photograph and publish?  I'll leave that to my readers.

After the 03 May 1999 tornado in the OKC area, my wife, who worked in the Norman hospital ER that night, told me about the horrible things she had seen coming in to the ER.  I had absolutely no wish for her to have recorded images of that agony for me to look at.  I'm pretty confident no one in an ER would allow such a thing!  After the Jarrell, TX tornado, I was told that the death toll had been difficult to determine after the event, in part because many of the victims had been cut to pieces by the tornado, making it very challenging to know to whom the scattered bodyparts belonged.  Again, I have no wish for anyone to share images of those grisly reminders of the violence of tornadoes. 

It's repugnant for me even to think about seeking out and finding horrific injuries inflicted on tornado victims, to say nothing of photographing them and selling the photographs.  I leave the seeking part to the trained and experienced first responders, who surely must go through some awful experiences in dealing with tornado victims on the scene.  I salute them for their courage and devotion to help people in awful circumstances.  I don't want to be within the damage path after a tornado.  If I'm nearby, my policy is to leave search and rescue to the professionals, and stay out of their way.

One thing that happens virtually all the time is when bodies are recovered in a fatality situation, they're covered up as soon as possible, until they can be taken to a morgue.  Why?  Surely it's out of respect for the dead and their families.  Would it be respectful to uncover them just so a photojournalist could record that carnage and perhaps win a Pulitzer prize?  I definitely think not, and I'm confident most (if not all) first responders would feel the same way.  If any photographs were taken before the bodies were covered, it would be for identification purposes, not for a photojournalist to record. 

In fact, in the case of the little girl in Nebraska, it's my understanding that first responders on the scene did ask the "photojournalist" to stop photographing the victims, but he refused to stop.  He's been backpedaling like mad to make himself out to be some sort of saint.  This is a troubled young man and his credentials as a photojournalist are pretty thin, it seems to me, although I don't know enough to be sure.  I actually find his story to be a pretty sad one, based on what I have heard second-hand, so I don't want to demonize him, despite my concerns over what he did before and after the event.  What I find especially disturbing now are the rationalizations I hear about the duties of photojournalists.  I ask again:  what would you do, given the situation of being there right after the tornado?  Would you take the shot?  Would you feel right about being paid for its use?

In my case, no ... and no.  Opinions vary, as usual.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The passing of Alan R. Moller

One of my favorite photos of Al, with me in the Fort Worth office of the NWS, showing the Pampa, TX tornado of 08 June 1995, one of our best chases together -- photo by Sam Barricklow
Today, I woke up to the awful news of the death of my long-time chase partner, friend, and colleague, Alan R. Moller.  He finally succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer's, taken from us years before his body finally died by that cruel affliction.  Seeing his razor-sharp mind and amazing memory stolen from him slowly was difficult to endure:  among his last words to me were:  "Do I know you?"  When I told him we'd been friends for more than 40 years, he said "That's amazing."  I realized then that the man I knew was gone, and the end of his body was inevitable.  I just couldn't endure seeing him that way again.  It was too much for me to take.  My deepest gratitude to his DFW-area friends:  Sam Barricklow, Carson Eads, Tim Marshall, Ed Cohen, and others.  They visited him and helped to brighten his days as the end drew near.

Fortunately, I have the memories of that long-enduring friendship, beginning in 1972, to cherish.  The Al Moller I knew was a wonderfully complex person, with an inquisitive, deeply-probing mind, a high-powered thinker on many topics, a person who willingly gave of his time and resources to anyone and everyone who needed them, something of a volatile temper, a wry sense of humor, often impatient but very devoted to his passions: forecasting, storm chasing, drag racing, western art, blues music, photography, and so on.   Fortunately, I got the benefit from the extended time spent with him during our chase expeditions.  I treasure that time, now. It's how I want to remember him.

When it came to his passions, Al could be very outspoken.  This was something of a problem for his efforts to climb the career ladder, but he never, ever sacrificed his principles in order to avoid ruffling bureaucratic feathers.  He didn't suffer incompetence or stupidity very willingly.  He stayed an idealist all his life.

Anyone lucky enough to have attended one of his public presentations was in for a real treat.  At the end of the formal scientific presentation, he would often put on a "bonus" slide show of his favorite images.  Not just storms, but photographs of wildflowers, mountain scenery, fall foliage, ... any outdoor landscape he might encounter on his journeys.  With each new image on the screen, there would be a moment of stunned silence, followed by a collective sharp intake of breath - the actual definition of what it means to be "breathtaking".  His slide shows were famous, and more than worthy of that involuntary reaction.  And it wasn't a case of Al bragging about his great photographs, either - he simply wanted to share the beauty he saw with others.  No, those slide shows weren't showing off, but passing on the marvelous moments he'd been able to capture.  Chasing with Al made me a much better photographer, as a by-product, but he was always the master.

When we chased together, it wasn't uncommon for us to get into loud, vigorous arguments - shouting matches, more or less.  These never even came close to becoming a cause for us to give up our friendship.  We both were stubborn, opinionated people, but with a deep mutual respect for each other.  I appreciated that Al wouldn't hesitate to catch me up if he thought I'd said something stupid or incorrect.  These arguments never detracted from the fun we had chasing together - chasing with Al was something I looked forward to during the time of our chasing partnership.  Eventually, the time came to end that part of our relationship, but it's something I enjoyed tremendously while it endured!

Al also had a passion for public service, as well as for forecasting and severe storms.  This he discussed with me during our chases together.  He was profoundly committed to that, doing spotter training talks all over north TX and elsewhere - the best spotter training anyone could have asked for, dispensed with his unique style and panache.  It was from him that I learned that a good forecast/warning wasn't the end of the story.  There was much that had to happen after a weather forecast product left the forecast office, and Al was unshakably determined to do whatever he could to make those things happen.  Al cared about people ... all people ... and did whatever it took to help them, if they needed something.

I'm proud to have known Al - he helped me, too, in many ways. His passing leaves a hole that can never be filled, but he gave us all so much - a legacy any man would be proud of, at the end.  His contributions go far beyond those he touched personally - people who never knew Al, but have benefited from his huge legacy without knowing from whom the benefit originated.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Me! Me!! ME!!!

According to Wikipedia, the "Me Generation" is the so-called Baby Boomers - my generation.  Of late, it seems to me that our current 20-somethings are strong competitors for that label.  As a weather geek, I'm probably not the most knowledgeable about such things, but it sure seems to me that storm chasing is being flooded with a large infusion of folks out there chasing who are, as my friend Gene Moore says, mostly about themselves and not so much about the storms.  "Look at me!" they shout.  "I'm special because I chase storms [stupidly!]."  They seem to care little or nothing about the feelings of storm victims as they cheer a tornado touchdown in their videos.  They thumb their noses at the very notion of chasers being responsible to others.  They wallow in their uncaring "outlaw" status, joyful as a pig in a mud puddle when they get publicity for their "exploits". "We can do whatever we want to and you can't do anything about it!"  And that part's true - I can't.

The dominant theme seems to be to get your video on TV (and/or to post it on Facebook) to show the "adventure" of being caught in a tornado, even when the video is pretty clear evidence in some cases that they're not in the tornado.  They often like to claim they're out chasing in order to save lives - which is pretty evidently ludicrous.  No, for these egomaniacs, it's all about shouting themselves into fame and fortune, pushing their foolishness onto our TVs and computer screens so that they become renowned - if not famous, then infamous for their foolishness.

In the wake of the tornadoes in Nebraska on yesterday, we have an image spread far and wide by a self-proclaimed photojournalist that purports to show the body of a little girl on a gurney shortly before she died from her injuries.  The photojournalist seems quite defensive about some of the reactions to his marketing of this image and, in my view, he has cause to be defensive.  I acknowledge that photos may show an unpleasant or even offensive image of a situation, and a photojournalist surely has the job to record those images and to show the rest of us the truth of the situation.  I get that.  But profiting from this image just seems wrong to me.  The event his image records is not about the photojournalist and his reaction to the situation, upon which he seems primarily focused.  It's about the little girl, her family, and the town's struggle to cope with a disaster.  In my opinion, his proceeds from selling that image should be donated to disaster relief, or to the family of the little girl.  He advises others to send relief to the town - should he not do likewise (preferably without fanfare or the cameras rolling as he does it) when he is profiting from their misfortune?  Does his success as a photojournalist make him immune to the immorality of personal gain at another's expense?

Also, an arrogant private sector weather forecaster has taken the same opportunity to promote himself and his services, heaping scorn on the forecasts and warnings by the National Weather Service (NWS).  Private sector forecasters have a proclivity for this, especially when they actually appear on the air, promoting themselves rather than focusing on their statutory obligation to disseminate weather information.  Disrespecting forecast competition isn't limited to other private sector forecasters - they often spread their net of scorn to include the NWS, whose ability to respond is basically zero, regardless of the truth or falsehood of such criticism.  No, the private sector is blatantly self-promotional, and is evidently willing to use every situation to promote themselves and disparage their "competition".  They are the quintessential proponents of themselves.  Rarely do they subject their own products to rigorous verification, and even more infrequently do they publish their verification statistics for all to see.  "I'm great! Take my word for it!" they proclaim.  A few are exceptions to this typical behavior - more power to them.  But self-serving promotion of themselves is rampant and unethical, in my view.  The American Meteorological Society should be much more aggressive in pursuing ethical violations by its members, it seems to me.

Self-promotion seems pervasive in today's world.  It's surely not limited to my generation.  And it seems to be increasing, at least as it relates to severe weather.  It surely can be argued that this blog could be interpreted as a form of self-promotion, but I think rather than seeking fame and fortune, I'm putting my thoughts out as catalyst for discussion - not lining my pockets with cash or attempting to gain fame as a consequence.