« 'Wild Beauty' and 'Into the Sunset' | Main | Despair »

Friday, 08 May 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Not clearcut as you say. But: as the bicyclist approached the photographer was there. Unlike the falling woman he really could have done something - shout a warning - that would very likely have prevented a nasty accident. Once he'd done his moral duty he'd be free to photograph the resulting scene of course.

Also, the photographer obviously had the free time to stand there and wait for a bicyclist to come by. Again, he could have used that time to do several things, including but not limited to pushing or throwing some nearby piece of debris (a pontificating backseat moral driver or two perhaps) out in front of the pothole so that there'd be a visible warning that something was in the way.

In this case, yes, I do think he does have a moral duty to act further than he did, and depending on the precise circumstances he may be part (small part but still) culpable for the accident.

"Also, the photographer obviously had the free time to stand there and wait for a bicyclist to come by."

Isn't that what's called, in the courtroom, "arguing facts not in evidence"? You ASSUME he lay in wait, and it's a fair assumption, but there's actually nothing about the picture that PROVES he lay in wait and failed to shout a warning that he could have. Maybe he was standing there taking a picturesque shot of reflections in puddles and caught the accident out of the corner of his eye, and simply reacted quickly. I'm not saying that that's a fact in evidence either, just that we don't know either way from the picture.


"...if you knew there was a pothole there, would you stay there in the rain to warn everybody who might come along—even if you didn't have a camera?"

A moot point, because (assuming the photographer was "lieing in wait") the photographer DID choose to stay there. In my head, the choices given the pothole setup are :

1) Move on, in which case the cyclist would have had the exact same problem, but you couldn't help that.
2) Stay, and warn the cyclist (assuming a warning would be easy and not dangerous in this case).

Anything else shows poor morals from my perspective, and isn't something I'd be willing to do if I found such a situation.

Ah, but you're ignoring the principle of the greater good: save one cyclist by shouting a warning, or take a picture of one misfortune and embarrass the government into filling the pothole--and save all future unfortunates. Again, we do not have all the facts, but given that that's how the photographer defended himself, we can't ignore this issue either.


...And of course the much larger moral issue we're dodging here is: is it ethical to behave badly in order to get a successful picture? Or can "we" (the set of "all moral photographers") only take pictures of misfortunes we can't help and can't change?


Ah, but I thought that's what you were going to say. The photographer doesn't have all the facts either. He/she is only hoping that it will cause a pothole to be fixed, and possibly keep others from getting hurt.

So I think (emphasis on think) I would still feel the same, regardless of those circumstances. Taking it to extreme extremes, would you stand by and take a photo of someone falling off a cliff if it would maybe cause a railing to be installed and maybe save several others? You can't know that that will be the actual outcome. I think that's why I would have to intervene.

As an aside, I can't imagine this is the most productive way to get potholes fixed...but maybe in China it is?

I'm also wondering if this is really that serious an issue. Is this cyclist in danger of getting hit by a car? Or did he splash down into the water and laugh it off? That kind of information may affect your decision, but the setup for this post was that it was a grave enough situation to warrant warning the cyclist.

What's all this "standing around and warning" nonsense? Much simpler: put a road cone, or a chair, or an old box, or a shrub, or _anything_ in the pothole that will divert bicyclists. I don't think a photographer has any greater or lesser responsibility than any other person.

What about war photography? Do you help the innocent victims, or do you shut up and make your pictures? The journalist's rule is that the reporting, the photos, the video, always have to come first.

Seeing the photo above it's impossible not to think of the photographer who captured it (often the case with amazing photos), and in this case we feel what the photographer must have felt -- a twinge of guilt. But that's the guilt (s)he rightly overcame to get the photo.

If you're an observer, then be a good observer and trust that your observing will help make the world right. THAT is the best argument for why the photographer is in the moral clear -- the others are just icing.

All I know is that, as you said, the same (or very, very similar) pictures and the same (or very, very similar) arguments seem to pop up every few years.


Ignoring the pothole question for a moment, how safe is it to ride a bicycle carrying an umbrella? And no helmet? Isn't the bicyclist basically flaunting common sense in the first place, thereby relieving the photographer of shouting out a warning?


Let me muddy the waters further [ grin ].

There's a nice experiment in cognitive sciences. You pose the subject the following problem. There is a bus of school kids stuck on a railroad track. There is a siding with one kid playing on it. A train is coming down the track. If you do nothing, it hits the bus. If you throw the switch, the train goes onto the siding and hits the kid. Do you actively kill a child to save many?

That's not the whole experiment. Here's the rest:

Slightly different situation. Bus of kids stuck on the track. Train coming. There is a kid standing in front of you next to the track. If you push that kid into the path of the oncoming train, it will stop before it hits the busload of kids. Now what do you do?

What's interesting is not the answers people give. What's interesting is that although the two situations seem morally comparable, entirely different parts of the brain get involved in evaluating the different cases. Psychologically, it's comparing apples and oranges.

I would posit a similar problem involved in deciding between rescuing one by cyclist by direct action or sacrificing that one to rescue many by indirect action. It is not resolvable by moral comparison.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Why is a photographer required to be more moral than any other person? What about shopkeepers on that street? Don't they have a greater obligation to warn the rider, since they've presumably known far longer than the photog?

If you are tending a booby trap you hope to exploit to make a picture (whether or not you actually set the trap), a trap with the potential to seriously hurt somebody, you are at best an Allen Funt vulgarian and at worst a potential manslaughter perp. Also a total jerk who should be forced to shoot 126 Hawkeye Instamatics exclusively. Try that for a year and then tell me the camera doesn't matter.

So the guy got wet, big F'ing deal.

I really don't think this is a moral issue in the philosophical sense. It is more personal. Ask yourself: would you do it? no matter the consequences? What if he died?

I'm a moral sump-hole. When I saw that photo, the first thing that popped into my head was Henri Cartier-Bresson's picture of the guy hopping over the puddle, and wondering if were some kind of comment on that shot. It never occurred to me to wonder if the cyclist got hurt. I fall back on Faulkner: "The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." 8-)


Since everyone is playing amateur attorney here, I thought I would chime in. Instead of blaming the photographer who may or may not have been lying in wait for a good photo opportunity, maybe some of the blame should be shifted to the cyclist.

The guy is riding a bicycle while holding an umbrella so obviously he was not riding with both hands on the bicycle. If both hands were on the bicycle, maybe he wouldn't have spilled. It is somewhat akin to texting while driving.

This smells like contributory negligence to me.

Finally, just maybe the photographer was not waiting for the cyclist to take a spill, but was merely photographing something that he may not have seen before: a cyclist holding an umbrella while riding a bicycle.

Ah! Now this is an interesting one, Mike.

But I’m not going to take the bait. Instead, I’ll offer a larger context. At the moment, in Chicago, driving requires the reflexes of a 15-year-old and the judgment of a 70-year-old. There are vast pothole fields and some are ready to swallow buses (don’t jump to conclusions—the city is doing its best but this past winter was designed for pothole generation). If the picture was taken in Chicago and the street was a Chicago street and the potholes were legion was the act of taking a picture of the ten-thousandth occurrence of a nasty fall (on the same street) reprehensible?. What’s interesting about this is the assumption that the photograph depicts a unique occurrence rather than the unique view of a common occurrence. Hmm.


O.K., speaking as a cyclist, photographer and general citizen, there seem to me to be a few things to consider here.

First, as a cyclist, riding with an umbrella isn't the brightest strategy. Two hands on the handlebar are definitely better than one. However, much as Ted Johnson would like to blame the cyclist for being careless (and it's "flouting", not "flaunting", by the way), from the looks of the photograph, two hands wouldn't have made any difference. The element of surprise always works in favour of the deep pothole. And, helmets? In China? Heck, forget China, take a look at the number of North American cyclists not wearing helmets.

From the "citizen" standpoint - how long would the hypothetical "concerned citizen" be required to stay there, monitoring the situation? Till the rain ended and the road dried? After all, that citizen is aware of the problem. If he/she was morally obligated to warn this particular cyclist, wouldn't he/she be morally obligated to warn everyone until the situation was rectified?

Lastly, from a photographic standpoint - nifty shot!

reminds me of this

David Vestal wrote that photographs don't tell, they show. This photograph shows that a guy cycling in the rain, holding an umbrella over him, crashed somewhere. Everything before and after is assumption on the part of the viewer.

We are beholden only to the law and our own consciences - almost nowhere in the world would it be illegal for a random person to _not_ report a pothole. Anywhere it is legal to carry a camera it would also be legal to walk down that same street and wait with a camera, or to just be walking by with a camera and have reflexes fast enough to get this shot.

I like and am interested in this picture more than I care about some guy I've never met and who may have suffered nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises (I cycle to work most days and have come off spectacularly a time or two). But he may also have been being followed by a vehicle which maimed or killed him.

The point is that we don't know and can't assume.


Obviously the bike rider was not riding with the umbrella held open in one hand. The umbrella was tucked, in the closed position, in the orange emergency kit mounted on the rear of the bike. After striking the pothole and realizing that he was in for an "unplanned getoff", he very quickly whipped out the umbrella and opened it, hoping to use the aerodynamic drag of the umbrella to slow his rate of descent.

Unfortunately the Lin Tao could not document the entire sequence, as his camera had no motor drive; he was using a 126 Hawkeye Instamatic.

The orange emergency kit on the back of the then vertical bicycle served as a warning beacon for those following the bicyclist, which was fortunate for Lin Tao; he had used up his last Magic Flash Cube on this shot.

Folks, move along, there is nothing to see but a lot of rationalizing going on.


Perhaps not quite the same situation, but nevertheless a moving treatment of photographers' responsibilities and ethics. One poster at the time brought up Kevin Carter's Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture, which is perhaps more pertinent to this post.

Yes, a photojournalist has unique ethical responsibilities that non-photojournalists do not, as, for example, do priests and lawyers. Call it witness, documentarian, journalist or something else, but it is a critically important role and it should take extraordinary circumstances to release the photojournalist (or the priest, the lawyer, the doctor, the greengrocer) from that responsibility.

Some great comments here on that score. Who is or is not a photojournalist is another debate. (btw, if the photog in this case really had been lying in wait, wouldn't we have a much better picture of the event?)

As for that other ethical dilemma you mention, Mike: some things are important enough to revisit; to see it in new ways, from new perspectives, to repeat the same damn good advice, or simply just to remind us of something we should not get complacent about or need to deal with. Web guru-hood, too, has its burdens.

Just to add a bit of basic information: many people in Asia use umbrellas while bicycling in the rain, and very few wear helmets.

Sorry, man, I don't buy your logic. It hasn't been established for certain, but assuming the photographer really was sitting there waiting for some poor schmuck to come along and crash in the rain because of a pothole he knew to exist, then the photographer is certainly in the wrong. He could leave, and then wash his hands clean of the affair altogether--that would be fine, just like it is when everyone else does it. He could stay and warn everyone, although it's not likely. But to knowingly stand there waiting for something you know is likely to happen and watch it while it happens is premeditated, selfish, and shows a lack of concern for fellow human beings.

If it was something like waiting for cars to drive past and splash people, then I'd say it's innocent fun (for the photographer, not the people being splashed!). But flipping over the handle bars on a bike in the rain on the street with cars driving nearby is serious stuff and clearly crosses the boundary of innocent fun.

But again, maybe the photographer really did just happen to capture it in the moment and it wasn't premeditated. Who knows...

I'm glad it came about. Too interesting a shot to not have happened. Ethics be damned.

The photographer standing by the the puddle should have been sufficient warning for the cyclist. Thus, I consider the photographer's moral obligation was fulfilled.

A lot of assuming going on here. From the photo and caption I can tell 3 things:
1. A cyclist was upended by a pothole while riding in the rain
2. Some people think the photographer was lying in wait
3. the photographer wishes to draw attention to potholes in China.

That appears the extent of it.

Aside from the obvious discussions going on, I can't tell whether this is a crop or the full frame, which means I don't really know the photographers proximity to the action.
I also don't know if the photo has been staged, whereby cyclist and photographer were acting together.
And if the photographer was powerless to warn, I don't know if his next action was to call an ambulance and administer first-aid.

The problem with moralisers is their ability to make huge leaps of logic unsupported by the facts presented.

Mike J,
Did you teach a journalism ethics class?
I may have taken part in a lengthy discussion over the same "woman falling from burning building" photo in an ethics course I took in the late 90s.
I recall the class being divided, journalim/communications majors over here, all else over there.

Robert E beat me to it.
Had this photographer been "lying in wait", they would have had ample time to get their shutter speed/focus setting straight and pulled off a shot with the bicyclist in mid-endo.

How much responsibility would the photographer-witness have for increased injury caused by cyclists hitting wet rocks/chairs/boxes half-submerged in that puddle? Or worse, in dozens and dozens of pothole/puddles, and the splinters and shards left by cars using that same lane...

As an occasional cyclist, I think I'd rather take my chances with water-filled potholes than try dodging every Clampett-inspired pile left in the road as a warning by concerned citizens.

F8 and do no harm, maybe?

"I'll gradually start to feel as if I'm saying the same things over and over again, and I won't want to write anything because I'll be afraid I've bored people with it before"

I wouldn't worry. I blogged about a favorite musician of mine (ugress.com) at least three times, thinking something similar. And one of my most loyal readers said, only after the *third* time: "wow, this is amazing music, I'm so happy to have found it."

Something basic bears repeating.
Of course making it fresh is a bonus.

That is a truly great photograph.

an article in an engineering magazine some years ago told of the daily duties of a pair of jr civil engineers who walked the streets of a major US city documenting all the hazards along the city's sidewalks.

each week a published record of these findings are sent to the appropriate city manager and to the consortium of law firms that helped fund the report. apparently, the courts had ruled that the city is not liable for injuries resulting from unknown defects.

Regarding the ethical question...

Unless the photographer created the pothole in order to capture this I see no problem.

It's really just a bit of Schadenfreude.

Although I was half kidding in my previous post (and thanks stephen for correcting my use of the word "flaunting"), two hands on the handlebars *might* have made a difference as the wheel appears to be twisted to the left. Even a large enough crack in pavement under water could have caused the rider to do an endo. BTW, as a former mountain bike patroller at a local park I can tell you most people don't wear helmets.

However, although I feel a slight bit of moral outrage at the photographer, overall I can't help but feel that when you ride a bike you take on a lot of risks, including gov'ts that fail to repair potholes or clean up sand that collects over the winter, much less motorists on crowded city streets. One has to wonder how many others just sat back and watched the disaster in the making at that pothole. One also has to wonder if the city had been advised of the problem and done nothing.

The real question is: If a bicyclist falls due to a pothole and no one is around to photograph it, does he/she end up with road rash?

Guy holds umbrella and bicycles to wherever he is going instead of wasting time waiting for the rain to stop. Bystander with split second reflexes takes shot. Pardon my national stereotyping, but somehow I feel we don't stand a chance competing against a society with so much energy and hustle.

If you wanted to get a pic like this, and you knew there was a pothole, and it was chucking it down with rain, would you (a) wait, in the pouring rain, for someone to happen across the pothole, or (b) get your mate to cycle into the pothole and crash dramatically.

I think it's a posed shot. I hope the pothole got fixed before someone got seriously hurt.

Wow what a great series of photos, chance encounter?

Like the blog btw good luck with photoblog awards


As a cyclist my opinion is what a dumbass to be riding holding on to an umbrella.Getting wet is a lot easier on the body than the standard faceplant he got.If you ride a bicycle on the street anywhere in this world and aren't focused totally on what you are doing death is a more likely result.That goes for mountain biking also. Great shot though.

Not exactly analogous, but this discussion may remind one a bit of the controversy over "the Falling Man."

'how safe is it to ride a bicycle carrying an umbrella? And no helmet?'
Ted, the brolly is not a good idea, but the bicycle helmet gives little but abrasion resistance.
Even motorcycle helmets only protect up to 30mph. With a helmet, there is a danger of risk compensation, so with a helmet the cyclist could have been travelling faster.
Would have been an even better shot, though....

I think holding a camera doesn't excuse a photographer's otherwise unethical behavior. I wrote an article about this on my blog a while ago, here concerning Andrea Modica. The point is, photographers have an obligation to not unfairly exploit their subjects. In TOP's instance, the photographer knew there was a hazard, and simple human decency means warning people. What if the cyclist had broken his neck and died due to the photographer's sin of omission (not warning the cyclist, and thus failing to prevent his death)? What would you think about a photographer who stood by at a washed-out bridge, waiting to capture a car careening off the edge into space and bursting into flames as it exploded below?

Why make the assumption that the photographer had known about the pothole for any longer than 5 seconds? Maybe just a moment before a car had gone through and thrown up a spray of water that the photographer was then waiting to recapture with a following vehicle...
What about the five hundred other people standing beside the published photographer, all with the capability to prevent an accident?
Photographers aren't the only observers in life.
The governments' issue is that a photographer did embarrass the authorities - not the individual cyclist.
Not wishing to be political but this is the same government who have just refused to allow parents to publicly grieve their dead children, lost in the recent earthquakes due to substandard school buildings collapsing...

I think too many are getting bogged down in the specifics of this picture. The bigger question is much more interesting - if you have a choice of preventing harm to a person or getting a stunning picture, which do you do?

In any specific example, there will be degrees of harm, and doubtless any number of possible justifications one way or another. Ultimately there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, it is about the type of person you are. Just go with what you feel comfortable with.

In this case, the "excuse" sounds flimsy to me ... as if the photographer felt a bit bad about someone getting hurt through his inaction, and needed to justify himself.

I'd say do what you think is right - just make sure you think about the consequences and be prepared to accept them - let the photo stand on its own, don't try and justify it - and that would also go for acts such as trespassing, stalking etc. etc.



46 comments? Oh well, I'll add one more. Photojournalism, for better and for worse, is basically a photographer's justification for voyeurism and sensationalism (and I include myself in the lot.) A picture usually won't win a prize unless there's a terrible grin of suffering, some blood spilling, horrible pain in motion, death, or anything that makes us stare. Let me repeat this. Stare. The same way we stare at a horror movie or the scene of a bad road accident.

So I find it funny that 46, now 47 of us are debating the circumstances of the puddle shoot and analyzing the photographer's intentions without asking the only fundamental question: why are we debating?

Is it less justifiable for that guy to hide and wait for some cyclist to hit the puddle than it is for a war correspondent to camp out on the field and wait for death to pass by? Should he not try and prevent it? How? Yet he will win a Pulitzer if his wait was long enough, the hide well chosen (and sometimes exposed), and death has put on a good show.

We never would think of questioning the motives of the photographers featured in the "Despair" post above. In my opinion, however, their setup was pretty much the same. With some risk added. Maybe.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007