Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Miraculous Rescue, Remarkable Reunion: more on how photographs connect us

Miraculous Rescue, Remarkable Reunion - News Story - WCVB Boston

Photographing tragedy is often controversial. Photojournalists are sometimes accused of being heartless ambulance chasers and sharks at a feeding frenzy when they turn their cameras on the suffering.

But I still firmly believe there is great social value in documenting the human condition – all of it. Sometimes, the value is not understood until years later.

Photographing breaking news has always been the forte of Boston Herald photographer Stanley Forman. In the late 1970s, Forman garnered an unequaled three straight Pulitzer Prizes in a row. Perhaps his best known photograph, and most controversial, is one that shows a woman and a child falling from a collapsed fire escape during an apartment fire. The woman died on impact and the child miraculously survived.  It's a heart-wrenching depiction of the worst kind of tragedy. The woman's death was not in vain, however. In short order, the City of Boston revamped it's safety regulations governing fire escapes. While many condemned the Herald for publishing the photo, this question, as always, remains: would such forceful action by city officials have ever taken place had the picture not been published?

The ultimate value of some photographs may not be fully understood until years later. The story linked above is such an example. Sometimes, we are quick to condemn photographs of tragedy in the name of protecting the victims. In this case, an innocent child who lost everything. The photographs depict the heroism of the firefighters in this instance, and that's of great importance. However, we see how, over thirty years later, these photographs and the person who made them helped a woman make sense of and better understand her own personal history.

The fact is, sometimes photographing tragedy actually helps victims cope. Many subjects of disturbing photographs never forgive the perceived invasion into their private experience and emotions. However, many others come to appreciate, over time, the attention given to their circumstances.

In his book Lessons in Life and Death, photojournalist David LaBelle says that photographing tragedy actually has a therapeutic value. That confronting mortality and that of loved ones can help people appreciate life itself. Photographs of tragedy, if used compassionately, can serve as a form of psychotherapy for society, as a whole and on a personal level.

And the key is compassion. As LaBelle says, "Love doesn't always wear a smile."

In the end, Tammi Brownlee's story is just another example of how photographs can reach across space and time and connect us as human beings.

To see more of Stanley Forman's work, click here: Stanleyformanphotos.com

Hannah Forman

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