Brow Beat

The Empire State Building Shooting Photos on Instagram: Were They Too Soon?

When photos like this one, depicting a crumpled, bloody man on the sidewalk, appear on Instagram I wish there was an option to “dislike” it. It feels uncomfortable to see 95 “likes”— in the form of sweet little hearts—beneath an image labeled as “dead man.”

This image, which Instagram user @ryanstryin posted to his 100 or so followers before Getty and other news wires had moved anything related to today’s shooting at the Empire State building, has now been republished on dozens of news sites and TV programs. It also represents everything that is complicated about news photography in 2012, in one tragic, square cell phone picture. A (possibly) dead victim posted on a platform people—especially photojournalism people—love to hate, accompanied by a comment thread in which some of those same photojournalism people are begging for permission to reproduce the image.

Photojournalists can be capable of superhuman feats, putting themselves in the line of fire to capture some of the world’s most dangerous and important stories. But they cannot predict where and when disaster will unfold. It is thus inevitable, in our smart-phone-enabled world, that we’ll sometimes be required to rely on photos taken by random bystanders when news breaks.

Speed isn’t necessarily a good thing. Amateur photos can start circulating before anyone really understands what’s happened. Untrained photographers can get facts wrong; they’re bystanders, not journalists trained to report the facts to the best of their ability.

Photojournalists have been quick to dismiss platforms like Instagram for just these reasons. And yet, in the stream of requests from photo editors for permission to use this image, no one asks anything along the lines of, “Is this real?” It’s as if in the frenzy to post what others had already posted, everyone assumed someone else had done their homework. There is nothing to suggest than this or any of the other images published today were false, but one day, a news organization, in the rush to publish early photos no matter what the source, might well run with something that’s not a true document of the scene. It’s another legitimate reason to feel some skepticism at the rise of the citizen-photojournalist.

A screenshot of just a handful of the comments requesting to use the image.

In fact it was the @ryanistryin Instagram commenters who made remarks more closely resembling what you might expect from a thoughtful photo desk editor.

“You really should take this down man, that’s someone’s family member would you really want them to see this… They would be a mess,” @mr_silvia, writes.

Others in the thread disagree. Ultimately @ryanstryin noted that out of respect, he waited for the officer to partially block the view before taking the photo, but he didn’t consider not posting it.

“This was the victim and [I] apologize to his family, but this had to be documented. It was my reality,” he writes. Thankfully, @ryanistryin also had the good sense to document his reality without a moody Instagram filter. Instagram makes it easy to post immediately, with little thought about the ramifications. That can be dangerous. But without this simple mobile platform, an image that has come to embody the tragedy today—on the Web and beyond—would likely be relegated to @ryanstryin’s camera roll.