Navigating the line between documentation and exploitation

"Halevi’s photos have become a staple in the media ethics classroom. Is it the photojournalist’s obligation to intervene on behalf of a stranger?"

You may have heard of these pictures before: the ones of the girl in the surf on Plum Island. At least, I’d always heard the figure was a girl, though when I actually saw the photos, I came to understand otherwise: She is a woman, and while she is a breathing woman in one frame, she has stopped breathing in the next.

The photos were taken by Marcus Halevi, a photojournalist for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who was assigned to capture, on film, the highest tides to have reached Plum Island, Mass., in over half a century. Instead, he captured the effects of those tides—a woman drowning.

What we know of the woman’s last moments we know only from Halevi’s photos and witnesses’ statements. The woman was believed to have been drinking that day and prior to the drowning reportedly mumbled, “Let the ocean take me.” When the water did take her—gripping a beer bottle in one hand, a cigarette in the other—people began wondering if her death was intentional and, more to the point, if Halevi might have prevented it.

Halevi’s photos have become a staple in the media ethics classroom. Is it the photojournalist’s obligation to intervene on behalf of a stranger? And, if so, is this form of intervention a moral imperative shared by all? The story is complicated further when we learn that Halevi’s seemingly close proximity to the victim is an illusion, the result of a telephoto lens. In reality, he was nearly 50 feet away from the woman, and when he spotted two men (one of whom happened to be a lifeguard) rushing to her aid, he held firm, his finger on the shutter release. While some view Halevi’s inaction as opportunistic (if not outright ghoulish), others have defended him, arguing that lifesaving was best attempted by a trained lifeguard and that Halevi’s primary role was to perform his function as he had been trained—to keep the subject in frame, to shoot until the film ran out.


On April 27, 2011, Tuscaloosa, Ala.—my home for the past four years—was destroyed by an EF4 tornado. Forty-seven people died. Thousands were displaced. My camera was out of batteries.

In the days that followed, we who survived took to the streets like zombies, uncertain how survivors were supposed to act.

We began thinking in terms of our remaining resources and the actions they demanded:

I have an axe, so I must chop this fallen tree.

I have hands, so I must move this rubble.

We embraced our role as witnesses to disaster, carefully surveying what remained of the worst hit neighborhoods, trying to deduce how words like “velocity” and “trajectory” and “wind speed” somehow transformed houses into shells.

One morning a few days after the storm, a friend and I walked through Tuscaloosa’s most ravaged sections; armed with her camera, we tried capturing some portion of the storm’s destruction. We felt it our obligation for the same reason we chopped trees and moved rubble:

I have a camera, so I must take this picture.

We had little control over the relief efforts, but we knew how to point and click.

First, we snapped photos of a lake filled with debris, of car windows shattered. We snapped a few of the downed power lines, coils of black snakes knotted alongside tree trunks. Never meant to be souvenirs, these pictures were our humble attempt to do something useful. As writers in grad school, we had been trained to believe that stories mattered, that remembering mattered, and that if we did a good enough job recounting these stories, we might matter, too.

Police officers occasionally asked us to “take it easy” with the pictures, to respect the victims’ privacy. We complied. After all, how were we to explain what we’d convinced ourselves were the subtle differences between exploitation and documentation, particularly to police officers who had already witnessed so much of the former?

Twenty-four hours after the storm, I watched as a carnival atmosphere consumed what was left of the town: people clogging the streets in SUVs, the passengers half-hanging out the windows. Everybody clutched iPhones and video cameras, capturing what little remained. They “oohed” and “ahhed” as if watching a fireworks display, taking turns posing and smiling for the camera.

One person’s disaster was another’s YouTube clip.


On May 22, less than a month after our experience, Joplin, Mo., too, endured a disaster. An EF5 tornado decimated the town, and as I watched the news footage over breakfast, I was overcome by a sickening déjà vu. Hadn’t we seen this before? Hadn’t it played out already?

Feeling mostly helpless, I employed the resources at my disposal:

I have a pen, so I will write a letter to Joplin.

My letter ran in a few St. Louis newspapers, warning Joplin residents that as a tornado survivor myself, I knew for certain that “this will get worse before it gets better.” The letter was well received, and for nearly a week, I received phone calls from radio stations and journalists throughout Missouri, asking for interviews about Tuscaloosa. I obliged, always willing to open my mouth though I hardly knew anything. My own house had been untouched, after all, and at the storm’s conclusion—once my wife, dog and I left the safety of our bathtub—when we walked outside, not even a single potted plant was overturned. We had been spared.

Yet, the people of Joplin had not been spared, and my letter to its citizens, gloomy content aside, went momentarily viral, enticing Missourians I’d never met to Facebook me, call me and come to me for answers. Columnists quoted the letter; pastors, too.

“People just really love it,” one interviewer informed me. “We’ve gotten all kinds of calls from churches that can’t wait to read it at Sunday services.”

I was the wrong spokesman, but I just kept talking.

I told them the death counts would continue to rise and that when cell phone reception returned, it would only bring bad news. I was no prophet—just a guy who couldn’t shut up—and in an attempt at solidarity, I went so far as to assure them that our towns would be “forever wedded by our shared season of misfortune.” But what did I know of misfortune?

Days later, when the letter reached a producer affiliated with Diane Sawyer’s “World News,” I was asked for an interview yet again.  And yet again, I was happy to comply.

I have a voice, so I must talk to them.

The film crew situated me in front of a few leveled houses half a mile from my house. For five excruciating minutes, as the camera rolled, I rambled about “togetherness” and “camaraderie” and “communities coming together.” I sprinkled in a few uplifting catchphrases, as well, working in “but there will be brighter days ahead” more times than I’m comfortable admitting.

In retrospect, my intentions seem obvious. I was a cheerleader for the living—proof that some of us were still OK. Yet, I could fulfill this role only when I refrained from looking at the destruction behind me. And so I stared directly into the camera, assuring the nation that Joplin, like Tuscaloosa, would undoubtedly endure.


Diane Sawyer’s “World News” never aired the footage. This, perhaps, was a lucky break for me. I had nothing of value to add, and as I watched the nightly news the following evening, I was relieved to watch other people’s stories instead. I received my message loud and clear: People had heard enough from B.J. Hollars.

If there had been more time on the film reel, I might have gotten around to mentioning to Diane Sawyer’s crew that my wife, dog and I merrily rode out the storm in a bathtub, our only inconvenience a dripping showerhead. I also might have admitted we watched a romantic comedy on a laptop that very night, while just out of earshot, people were crying for help.

“Maybe your town will recover,” I should have explained to the camera while scratching my head. “I guess I really don’t know.”


Marc Halevi didn’t know, either, what outcome would result from his photos of the woman in the surf. Writers and photojournalists are alike in that we can learn the answer only in the aftermath. As reporters of truth, perhaps our first responsibility is simply to tell it. When we start down the dangerous path of parsing what portion of truth we feel obligated to tell, we do a disservice to our readers. Simply put, reporters of truth (be it through words or pictures) are bound to a different set of rules than fiction writers and illustrators. We work at a disadvantage because we don’t create the stories ourselves, nor are we capable of divining their endings. In nonfiction, “happily ever after” is more a possibility than a guarantee, though this in no way diminishes our need to recount these stories. The truth is in the telling (or so the old adage goes), and it was my job simply to tell it.

At least, that’s what I thought.

But then, less than 48 hours after I completed a draft of this essay, a young man drowned in the river behind my house. We had recently left tornado-stricken Tuscaloosa, and as I began my first early morning jog in my new town, I noticed a bevy of police officers and rescue personnel peering into the river. To my right, a boy in a still-wet swimsuit leaned over a car’s driver-side window to share news with the girl inside. I overheard what I could while jogging past: “I really don’t know what happened.”

The story revealed itself later: how the young man and a friend attempted to swim off the nearby island back to shore, how the pair became separated in the dark water, how one made it back but the other didn’t.

The next morning, my wife, dog and I walked the riverbank directly across from that island. We were not looking for a body, but we found one—a middle-aged man tromping his way through the brush. I asked him if there had been any updates on the search, to which the man replied no, that they had yet to find his nephew.

“Nephew?” I asked.

For the next 10 minutes, we spoke with the victim’s uncle, and he told us many things I will not repeat here.

Perhaps a better writer would repeat them, would take his own advice and simply “tell it.” But for me, the story—still ongoing—wasn’t yet ready to be told.

Let the body first be pulled from the water. Maybe I’ll tell it then.


What good do we do by documenting the tragedies of strangers?

Consider the story of Stanley Forman, a photojournalist for the Boston Herald American, who on July 22, 1975, captured a photograph of 19-year-old Diana Bryant and 2-year-old Tiare Jones in mid-fall from a fire escape. The apartment had caught fire though the conflagration proved not nearly as harmful as the dilapidated fire escape. The metal gave under their weight, and as the pair plummeted to their deaths, Forman caught them when no one else could— snapping a photo that would snag him a Pulitzer Prize. In it, the teenage girl flies headlong while the 2-year-old’s outstretched arms are as straight as Popsicle sticks. The photo ran on the front page of the morning paper and proved so shocking that the city of Boston took immediate action—inspecting the city’s fire escapes and implementing building codes to ensure that no such pictures would ever again make the front pages.

Forman’s experience isn’t uncommon. In the past decade, nearly every recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography received the award for capturing some form of death or destruction. Take, for example, the Columbine photos and Sept. 11 photos, the photos of Katrina and Haiti’s earthquake. Take also the photos of forest fires and dying protestors and the horrors of the war in Iraq. On the reporting side, Pulitzers were awarded for stories as brutal as the photos that accompanied them—mass shootings and school shootings and shootouts. If a story didn’t have a gun, it likely had a natural disaster—or one that was terrorist-induced—and yet, rarely do we hear criticism of the exploitative reporting of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Rather, these stories are said to draw attention to an issue and, more important, to spur people to action.

Therein, perhaps, lies the criterion for our own work as writers. If a recounting of death and destruction spurs no one to respond, perhaps we’ve missed our mark. Maybe we exploited while attempting merely to document. Maybe I myself did. Yet, how are we ever to gauge accurately the intended effect of a work until after it’s written, until after the picture’s been snapped?

Ethics of journalism professor Lou Hodges simplifies the debate by reminding photojournalists of their “moral duty” to be “aesthetically offensive.” Writing about another drowning photo—this one featuring a dead 5-year-old, Edward Romero, half-zipped in a body bag—Hodges argues that reporters, in word and photo, should strive to present “an accurate image of that world, not one sanitized by well-meaning but misguided journalists.

“Where the world is bloody,” he continues, “it is dishonest and deceptive to hide blood from readers.”

The boy who drowned near my house did not bleed, and in truth, his story simply isn’t mine to tell. This isn’t yet my town, these aren’t my people, and I can’t see how my reporting might be of use to anyone. Regardless of what I do, that river will still be a river, and still, it will be dangerous. I can spur no action—just heartache—and for me, that is the difference.

About the Author

B.J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011).

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