Unless you are a news photographer, you don’t want to be around when disasters happen. But, natural or man made, they happen and there may be a time when you and your camera are present when something happens or arrive on the spot soon after the occurrence. Taking photographs of a disaster, their aftermaths and the survivors is legitimate photography and don’t let anyone tell you other wise. You are adding to the historical record and helping to convey the impact of the tragedy to people in distant places. But there are some practical and ethical boundaries you need to be aware of.
If you are present when disaster strikes, avoid the temptation to get to close to the scene. For example, if a building is on fire, getting as close a possible may get you some great images, but when you are looking through the view finder you have tunnel vision and don’t know what is going on around you. You may be stepping into danger without realizing it. Keeping a safe distance and using a telephoto lens will give you the same results while keeping you safe and out of the rescue teams’ way. Also the increased distance will give you a better perspective and a chance to adjacent scenes or activities which you may not be able to observe if you are too close to the action.
If there are other photographers on the scene, avoid duplicating the work they are doing. Walk around and look for images that may not be of the devastation itself, but may convey the emotion the disaster has aroused. For example, after and earthquake, every photographers will be taking photos of the ruined buildings. A photo of a child’s cycle crushed under a fallen tree may not capture the physical devastation, but will convey an image of human tragedy and loss.
Disaster photographers are often called leaches because they intrude on people’s suffering. Don’t be one of them. Pictures of disaster and suffering can convey the horror to people who are not on the spot and create an awareness of the need for help to the sufferers. That’s all well and good. So is taking photos of the survivors – you are presenting the human face of the tragedy and the emphasizing the need for help to reach them. But never intrude on people’s grief. At times of sorrow and loss, they may want to be left alone and photographers must respect that. Ask before photographing them. Similarly, be careful when walking through and photographing the ruins of a house flattened by a hurricane. You may not be taking pictures of people but you are photographing the ruins of someone’s life and you need to be sensitive to the house owner’s feeling, even if he or she is not around. Many people will not like seeing a picture of their ruined home in the next day’s newspapers.
And ALWAYS be very sensitive to photographing children at disaster scenes. Few things are as moving as the face of a traumatized child at a disaster. And the photo, if properly used, can help to generate a great deal of help and aid. But never forge the effect that a stranger suddenly appearing in front of a child and taking her picture can have on the psyche of an already terrified and shocked child.