Photographers and the Police

My New Year’s resolution was to start a blog and to share more of my photos. So as it is almost the end of January I thought I had better crack on. I won’t always have this much to say but I wanted to start things off by talking about ethics in press photography. When is it appropriate to shoot pictures during tragic events, and how is this best achieved?

Euan Coulthard – the name may be familiar to you, especially if you live in the Durham area. Another young life, taken too soon by the city’s river. His fellow students at Durham University made sure his face was in everyone’s minds, placing posters all around the town and using social media to raise awareness. The story was soon picked up by the local media and the national papers.

One of hundreds of posters placed around Durham by fellow university students of Euan Coulthard, 19, who went missing on Wednesday 14 January 2015 after a night out in the city

After just over a week of searching, on Friday (23 January), news began to emerge that a body had been discovered in the River Wear. I headed into the city to photograph the unfolding events. I found that the police were quite obstructive to the press photographers, creating a physical barrier at a great distance from the activity at the waters edge, and generally being unhelpful to the media.

Police cordon off a footpath near Framwellgate Bridge in Durham as the body of 19 year old student Euan Coulthard is removed from the River Wear

You may wonder why we would want to see a body being removed from the river, let alone photograph it, but here is my answer:
Firstly, the work of the emergency services involved in the search and subsequently the removal of the body require and deserve the publicity. The police, fire service and especially the voluntary organisations such as the mountain rescue teams do a difficult job. They don’t get paid as much as pop stars or footballers – so we should at least give them credit for what they do.

Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue teams enter the water on the River Wear at Durham during the search for missing Durham Univeristy student Euan Coulthard

Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue teams search the water on the River Wear at Durham during the search for missing Durham Univeristy student Euan Coulthard

I don’t think anybody could argue against the merits of raising awareness of the danger of the water, or of walking home alone from a night out, especially in bad weather conditions. An image can have a lasting impact, and an immediate one, on the viewer and convey a message in a way words cannot.

In this day and age we expect to see an image with a story. If something funny, or remarkable happens to us, we will shoot a photo or a video and share it with the world via social media almost immediately. Demand is high for breaking news, detailed updates with photos that tell the story.
In these tragic circumstances, who better to shoot these pictures than trained, professional photographers who are skilled at getting the best picture, respectfully and with the correct legal knowledge. 
The most shocking images of an event, such as a body being pulled from the water, or the body bag being wheeled away, often won’t make it to the paper, out of respect and sensitivity. But the whole event needs to be recorded. The photographer will select the most emotive photos from the day and file them to the waiting picture editors who receive thousands of images a day – all battling for news space. The best picture will be selected and immortalised forever in print.
This image can do all of the above – applaud the emergency services, raise awareness of the dangers of the water, and remember the dead. Somebody’s son. A name you will now remember because you’ve read about it and seen a photo that might shock you. 

The body of 19 year old student Euan Coulthard is removed from the River Wear in Durham by a diver and the fire service, nine days after he went missing on a night out in the city

Members of the fire crew who helped retrieve the body of 19 year old Euan Coulthard from the River Wear leave the scene

The body of Euan Coulthard is wheeled by paramedics to a waiting ambulance after he was retrieved from the River Wear by a diver

The latest guidelines from the Metropolitan police state;
“Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel.”
I think in these circumstances it would be helpful for the press and the emergency services to communicate and work together to enable both jobs to be carried out efficiently and respectfully, without criticism and arguments. The Met police website also states;

“The Senior Investigating Officer is in charge of granting members of the media access to incident scenes. In the early stages of investigation, evidence gathering and forensic retrieval take priority over media access, but, where appropriate, access should be allowed as soon as is practicable”

At times it can feel like its easier for the Police to make it difficult for the photographer than to deal with the consequences of a dramatic or shocking photo that could be seen by the world
Some of the most iconic and powerful photos of our time may have seemed inappropriate to shoot at the time but have gone on to become symbolic of events in history and some say, have even shaped our future
For example:

AVietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection. (11 June 1963) Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph. It raises a debate, if a photographer sees a tragic event unfolding should they seek help or shoot pictures? 


Crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, run down a road near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack. by Nick Ut/Associated Press. (June 8, 1972)
It has been said that this photograph came to symbolise the horrors of the Vietnam War and, ultimately, helped end it. It is also known that the photographer saved the life of the young girl in the photo – after shooting his picture



And lastly a more recent example, “The falling man” taken during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. By Richard Drew/Associated Press (11 September 2001) This imagewas deemed too controversial by many newspaper editors, the final decision on the morality of an image can often lie with the editor rather than the photographer

This subject could be discussed in endless detail, and is ever changing, especially with the influx of “citizen journalism” which poses another debate for another day… thanks for reading