Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Dave Faries

Armed With A Camera


Recently a photojournalist came under fire for snapping pictures.

R. Umar Abbasi happened to be in a New York subway station when one man pushed another onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train following a brief argument.

In the wake of the event, to quell hostility directed at him for failing to jump in and help, Abbasi claimed he clicked the shutter repeatedly hoping the flash would alert the train’s driver. More likely, his journalistic instincts kicked in.

News photographers cover their share of tragedies. Someone must document disasters, after all. They even cover the bloodiest battles.

Personally, I’ve always been impressed by those who stroll into a fray armed only with a camera, note pad or sketchbook. The likes of Bill Mauldin (war cartoonist) and Tom Lea (combat artist) are cultural heroes.

There’s little as gripping as Lea’s “2000 Yard Stare.”

Robert Capa was justly praised for his gritty images of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach. Oh, one account has a soldier wondering “what the hell is he doing here?” as he took pictures while the others fought and died. But the 11 surviving shots of grey surf and huddling men are all the world has to show of those first few moments on that bloody stretch of sand.

Yes, he took more. Capa landed in the second wave and snapped more than 100 shots. When the film arrived back at Life magazine headquarters in London later that day, darkroom personnel anxious to see the results (and therefore a bit careless with the dryer) melted all but the ones we celebrate now.

On Iwo Jima the next year, Joe Rosenthal focused in on Marines hoisting a flag on top of Mount Suribachi. The image became an icon, carved into granite, cast in bronze, featured by Hollywood directors and revered by Americans.

As he set the shutter speed and trained his lens, others leveled wary rifles. Japanese snipers were still active in the area. More than 500 of the Marines responsible for securing the volcanic peak were killed or wounded.

Yes, these are extreme examples. When most photojournalists find themselves covering catastrophe, they zoom in on fires, accidents, tornadoes or ambulance crews. And certainly there is a human requirement to aid others if no one else is around to help. Consider, however, the value of visual documentation.

Yoshito Matsushige survived the atomic blast over Hiroshima with little serious injury—and with his camera intact. He then spent several hours dealing with the shock of what had occurred, as well as with those suffering from ghastly wounds.

When he finally thought to point his camera at the unreal scenes before him, Matsushige recorded the only images in the aftermath of the world’s first nuclear explosion: people in rags and bandages clustered on a bridge, a soldier assisting with injured residents, the shadow of someone obliterated by the superhot light.

But what if he had lifted his camera hours earlier? The world might grasp the imperatives of life and death under the shadow of a growing, ashen mushroom cloud, might hear from black and white stills the ear-shattering crack of the explosion.

There is lasting value in an eight by ten frame.

Capa, Rosenthal, Matsushige—few condemned them for clicking a shutter while surrounded by tragedy. But Abbasi? Yeah, the circumstances were very different, but he did not deserve the response.

Others on the platform that day, watching a man struggling to escape onrushing death in the form of a subway train from a closer vantage point, acknowledge either being frozen with fear or busy recording the tragedy on their cell phones.

Yeah, that’s right. Instead of the many jumping in to help, they elbow in for a Facebook or YouTube opportunity. Then they lambaste the one doing his job.

You know, it’s a good thing they didn’t have cell phone cameras on Omaha Beach or Mount Suribachi.


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