Seares: When to drop the camera and save a life

Atty. Pachico A. Seares

ABD Alkader Habak, a photographer covering the Syrian war, last week was at the scene when a bomb hit a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from a besieged Syrian village.

Habak said he and his colleagues saw an “indescribable” image of people wounded and killed as they fled from another place of violence where 126 people, 68 of them children, died.

The news photographers were confronted with the old ethical question whether (a) just to keep doing their job and not to “get involved” or (b) set aside their cameras and help save lives.

Got to help

Larry Burrows of “Life” magazine in 1969 asked: “Do I have the right to carry on working or drop my camera to save a man’s life? To my mind, I’ve got to help.”

Burrows helped soldiers in battle. Habak and his fellow photographers helped children. Habak picked one up and ran to safety, leaving the child, about 6 or 7, at an ambulance. He went back and broke down, sobbing, after he tried to help another kid who turned out to be already dead (photo).

In such cases, photographers increase their risk to life and limb. Habak knew he could get killed or wounded by exposing himself although, regarding their work, he kept shooting and other photographers recorded what he did.


Photojournalists who stick to the rule on shunning involvement, which they say make them “complicit” with the staging of the event. Daniel Bersak, in a 2006 study for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote that literally getting into the picture “removes some of the distance necessary for journalistic objectivity.”

Circumstances vary from case to case. Each individual photographer must decide whether to stop shooting and help or go on recording the images -- or do both.

Habak decided with his co-workers, quickly, with no time to take a vote first. And, unlike Burrows, they weren’t helping combatants, just innocent civilians. Plus the searing fact that the people they’d help were children.

Cebu incident

The only photographer who took shots of Rodrigo Maneja, 33, civil engineer and cult leader, while he burned himself to death in 1985 at Plaza Independencia was not a journalist. He was a commercial photographer who in his work of taking photos of strollers on church grounds and the plaza couldn’t have known the ethical issue. But he sold the photos to two Cebu dailies, whose photographers, not being at the scene, weren’t confronted with the dilemma.

Maneja’s cult worshipped a Hebrew god that made him believe he would rise at 3 p.m. after setting himself on fire. He didn’t. He died as people, including his mother, police and media, watched.

Examining risk

A newsroom may take up the potential crisis situation, with editors and photo crew examining the risk of coverage. That will help although the photographer ultimately decides alone what to do when confronted with the options of setting aside the camera or saving a human life.