Though I’ve since learned that the sequence of photographs Marcus Halevi captured at Plum Island are infamous among journalists, I was unfamiliar with them until now. For those of you who share my ignorance of early-90s photojournalism, here’s a recap:
Halevi, a photographer with Massachusetts’ Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, was sent to cover the high tides at Plum Island. Capturing the water levels, the highest observed in over 50 years, was the original purpose of Halevi’s assignment. Upon arriving, the focus shifted.
A woman, nursing a beer bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood atop a sandy ridge overlooking the waves. Halevi set up his gear and shot the scene with the woman in it, liking the effect of a human being in the image. When the tide rolled in, the embankment collapsed beneath the woman, dragging her into the surf.
In times of crisis, we revert to muscle memory–Halevi’s training as a photographer took over. As the woman struggled in water, Halevi kept shooting.
The photographs he captured are disturbing; they provide a real, visceral account of death. Content of the pictures aside, was Halevi right to shoot the scene rather than step in?
Halevi later claimed that he was not the most qualified person present to save the woman. He believed that he was more effective at photographing the woman’s death than trying to prevent it.
I think that notion is ludicrous. Our responsibility to each other transcends our professional duties. I’m hard-pressed to think of a scenario where the value of a photograph of .a human being trumps the value of that human’s life. If the purpose of photojournalism is to document the goings-on of humanity, is the principle pursuit not to preserve humanity itself?
Make what arguments you will about Marcus Halevi. In my eyes, he’s a man who chose to stand idly by in the face of catastrophe. His actions speak of a photographer more concerned with his career than his fellow man.
As journalists, it’s our job to find stories. We seek out corruption, coincidences and catastrophes in an effort to relay them to the public. That being said, we are people first. We are people who have a responsibility to be people: to protect and provide for our neighbor because we expect the same to be done for us.
Let the woman at Plum Island be a lesson: We cannot prioritize saving a story over saving a life.