Would You Have Taken this Picture?

On the scene of a tragic accident, a photographer faced a decision that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

By James Alexander Thom from Reader's Digest Magazine | August 1976
Reader's Digest, August 1976A Reader’s Digest Classic, from August 1976

It was early in the spring about 15 years ago—a day of pale sunlight and trees just beginning to bud. I was a young police reporter, driving to a scene I didn’t want to see. A man, the police dispatcher’s broadcast said, had accidentally backed his pickup truck over his baby granddaughter in the driveway of the family home. It was a fatality.

As I parked among police cars and TV news cruisers, I saw a stocky, white-haired man in cotton work clothes standing near a pickup. Cameras were trained on him, and reporters were sticking microphones in his face. Looking totally bewildered,he was trying to answer their questions. Mostly he was only moving his lips, blinking, and choking up.

After a while, the reporters gave up and followed the police into the small white house. I can still picture that devastated old man looking down at the place in the driveway where the child had been. Beside the house was a freshly spaded flower bed and nearby a pile of dark, rich earth.

“I was just backing up there to spread that good dirt,” he said to me, though I had not asked him anything. “I didn’t even know she was outdoors.” He stretched his hand toward the flower bed, then let it flop to his side. He lapsed back into his thoughts, and I, like a good reporter, went into the house to find someone who could provide a recent photo of the toddler.

A few minutes later, with a three-by-five studio portrait of the cherubic child tucked in my pocket, I went toward the kitchen, where the police had said the body was.

I had brought a camera with me—the bulky Speed Graphic that used to be the newspaper reporter’s trademark. Everybody had drifted back out of the house together—family, police,reporters, and photographers. Entering the kitchen, I came upon this scene:

On a Formica-topped table, backlighted by a frilly curtained window, lay the tiny body, wrapped in a clean white sheet. Sitting on a chair beside the table, in profile to me and unaware of my presence, was the baby’s grandfather, looking uncomprehendingly at the swaddled corpse.

The house was quiet. A clock ticked. As I watched, the grandfather slowly leaned forward, curved his arms like parentheses around the little form, and then pressed his face to the shroud and remained motionless.

In that hushed moment, I recognized the makings of a prizewinning news photograph. I appraised the light, adjusted the lens setting and distance, locked a bulb in the flashgun, raised the camera, and composed the scene in the viewfinder.

Every element of the picture was perfect: the grandfather in his plain work clothes, his white hair backlighted by sunshine, the child’s form wrapped in the sheet, the atmosphere of the simple home suggested by black iron trivets and World’s Fair souvenir plates on the walls flanking the window. Outside the police could be seen inspecting the fatal rear wheel of the pickup, while the child’s mother and father leaned in each other’s arms.

I don’t know how many seconds I stood there, unable to snap that shutter. I was keenly aware of the powerful storytelling value that photo would have, and my professional conscience told me to take it. Yet I couldn’t make my hand fire that flashbulb and intrude on the poor man’s island of grief.

At length, I lowered the camera and crept away, shaken with doubt about my suitability for the journalistic profession. Of course, I never told the city editor or any fellow reporters about that missed opportunity for a perfect news picture.

Every day, on the newscasts and in the papers, we see pictures of people in extreme conditions of grief and despair. Human suffering has become a spectator sport. And sometimes, as I’m watching news film, I remember that day.

I still feel right about what I did.

What would you have done? Comment below.

  • Your Comments

    • Jim Hendry

      I think you did the right thing. We have become a nation of amoral people. That the spectacle of death is just a motif we put on our dining room tables. Death has become so commonplace that it no longer phases us. Then you have true human emotion. That place where empathy and solace have been driven to. The place in the back of your throat where you hold back tears when you can’t cry. What if you were that old man? Even with the new cameras you are the centerpiece of today’s top headline. Forever etched in infamy to never be allowed to forget, constantly reliving the fatal moment over and over.

    • Sonya Grob

      i just read this article. my home burned 3 1/2 weeks ago. we lost a fifteen year old cat, misti, my 27 year old daughters seven year old dog, sully, her three year old rescued squirrel, rocky, her almost two year old kitty, mr. jinx aka stinky jinx, and her precious eight month old tubby toby. my one eyed black cat jakob had escaped from the house earlier in the day and wasn’t in the house.
      the front page and on page two of the norman transcript the next day showed pictures of my daughter being held back by her 25 year old brother. the fact that instead of the photographer capturing a shot of the horrible smoke and flames that were coming from our house, he captured pictures of my daughter in her grief make me extremely angry! EXTREMELY! it was an invasion of her privacy as far as i’m concerned! she has NOT seen a copy of the paper. i don’t think i ever WANT her to see it.
      i don’t know when it became okay for people to be so callous as to take pictures of peoples broken hearts. the world is now a callous place. a very sad and angry place.

    • Jopan Sheng

      If, with today’s camera, no flash no shutter sound, will it still inturde….? Then follow what Jared suggests.

    • Zubairia

      Hats off! you’ve done a polite thing that many would not do.

    • Liberallez

      There are no absolutes…right or wrong… only choices. You were guided by something higher than news/profit. It’s called love.

    • Jared

      Take the picture.

      To archive. For your self only. Or a few close friends over time. Maybe to grandfather down the road. Or to the public after grandfather passes. Or alive with his blessing.

      Sometimes good art should remain privileged for just a few. Sometimes shared with many.

      Profit is not at question here. Emotional sentiment in art is key.

      Create the art! Is a lost Rembrandt lost forever because it was not painted?

      Take the picture. Figure out what to do with it …after the art is created. Keep it or sell it. That you figure out later. Just capture the moment. Before it fades.

      You get but one chance.

    • Katie82640

      What a loving and courageous decision. There is a timelessness about consideration of others.

    • Sheth Sir

      The moments are more important than the event itself….however,when emotional and valued …the moment shouldn’t be archived…

    • http://www.topazhorizon.com Topaz Horizon

      Too many times the profit is more important than the human experience. I am sad for this tragedy but you were right. You respected them and their dignity. Thank you.

    • deep

      absolutely lovely