A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

To Shoot or Not to Shoot: When is it Not Okay to Take a Picture?: 12/00

We received this E-mail from Trevor Frey, a photojournalist with the Commonwealth Journal, Somerset, Kentucky (his message is edited and reprinted with his permission):

[There was] a neck injury at a high school soccer game. I rushed out and the ambulance was already on the field. I ran up and stopped to shoot a girl being placed on a stretcher. I saw my friend John, who was refereeing the game. I said a quick hello and he said, "I don't want any pictures. That's my cousin. Please. No pictures." I was astonished that he would expect me to stop because we were friends.

Trev's situation raises the question encountered by photojournalists and videographers everywhere: When should you not take a picture?

That question probably sends shivers down the back of every photo editor or news director, who think that they should be the ones to decide on the appropriateness of a visual message. But one makes decisions in the field as well as back in the shop.

Here are our top ten reasons for not shooting a still or video. There are certainly more. In fact, one of us proposed 14 reasons, but the other was concerned that readers remain awake for the entire column. (We agreed that "running out of film" was probably not one we should address here). At least, our Top Ten can start a discussion in your newsroom.

Our reasons can be divided into five broad categories: professional, aesthetic, etiquette, ethical, and personal.

Professional reasons include:

The situation is not news. Who hasn't had the experience of following a police or fire scanner and finding nothing to shoot? The concept of news is hard to pin down. A photojournalist needs to learn quickly whether a situation is worthy of coverage. A chat with a reporter on the scene or a call to an editor might help in the decision not to take photographs.

You know your editor won't go for it. Some news organizations have a policy of not showing dead bodies of local residents, or of not running the cliche cute-kid-in-the-fountain shot. If that's all you see, there may be a compelling reason not to shoot the picture.

An aesthetic reason might be:

It's not a good picture. For whatever reason-bad luck or poor preparation-the scene you see through your viewfinder doesn't measure up to a compelling or telling moment. It could be that you have the wrong lens or you can't find an angle or perspective that is worth firing off a frame.

Etiquette reasons include:

The subject objects. A banker on trial for embezzlement who snarls out, "don't take my picture" should be ignored. But a parent whose child is playing in a park, a homeless person worried about the loss of her soul, a military leader trying to protect her troops (maybe), a native American wanting to preserve the sacredness of a ceremony, and so on have the right to ask you not to take pictures. And you should have the sensitivity to make a decision that weighs the news value of the situation against the subject's wish.

It is inappropriate. Someone-no matter how famous-eating a mouth full of banquet chicken is rarely an appropriate subject for images. Again, a photographer needs to question the true news value of an embarrassing moment.

There are, as always, ethical reasons:

It may be unfair. Subjects of news stories engage in innocent public acts that, when taken out of context, become misleading. For example, a candidate under a cloud of sexual innuendo is having an innocent lunch with a colleague.

It may violate a person's privacy. All of us require some sense of privacy to comfortably move through our daily life activities. This expectation for privacy-even in a public place-is the reason why some photographers will not take pictures of people without their knowledge or consent. Celebrities give up many privacy rights the rest of us take for granted so the stars can sell their likenesses for great profit. But even a celebrity should be allowed privacy from visual documentation if there is no other reason to take her picture than the fact that she is well known. This is when being sensitive to privacy rights and having a strong news sense go hand in hand.

It may support a negative stereotype. Pictures that reinforce negative stereotypes of those from diverse cultural groups fall into this category. We are all impacted by the bombardment of stereotypical images from entertainment and advertising. If the mental adjective that accompanies your view of a subject sounds like a negative cliché-dumb blonde, computer nerd, surfer dude-the picture probably is a visual statement of the stereotype and should not be taken. Reinforcing negative stereotypes is an ethical mistake that is easy to make. In a subsequent column we will expand on the notion of stereotyping and community coverage.

And finally, there are personal reasons:

It might be too dangerous. Getting close enough to some news events may be hazardous to your life and limb. It is always okay to avoid putting yourself in harm's way. But great respect should be given to those who take personal risk for important news photographs.

A friend asks you not to. Trev Frey wrestles with this reason in the rest of his E-mail:

I calmly explained that "John, I know we're friends, but man, you can't expect me to not shoot this because she is your cousin. I hope she's okay too. It's no disrespect, but I have to do my job." I tried to comfort my friend because "it dawned on me that he had no other family there and he might have a seriously injured relative."

Trev shot the rest of the game and shared beers with his friend that weekend so they could talk about the situation. The soccer player was in her first period class the next morning. Ultimately, the picture of the injured player on the stretcher never ran. As the girl was not seriously injured, the picture simply was not news. But Trev couldn't know that at the time he took the pictures.

Photojournalists and videographers are not automatons. They are professionals continually making judgments in the field. The more agreement shooters and news editors can have on the Top Ten, Eleven, or Twelve, reasons not to take a picture, the more confident journalists can be in doing their jobs.

IN A SUBSEQUENT COLUMN, we will discuss covering your community while avoiding stereotypes. We would like some input from you. Do you have a responsibility to cover your entire community-not just those who read your newspaper or watch your broadcasts? How do you avoid picturing negative stereotypes of those from diverse cultural groups? Do you have any positive or negative examples you want to show and discuss? Do you think that stereotyping is an important issue? As always, send your E-mail to us via

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