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The Unexpected Consequences of On-Scene Photography


Judging from a dialogue going on at JEMS Connect some months ago, there’s still a lot of confusion over taking pictures or video at crime and accident scenes.

Some of the questions being raised: How much overlap is there between the First Amendment and first response? Are emergency medical personnel allowed completely free expression, such as the right to take pictures of victims or fellow EMS provider engaged in treatment at an accident scene? Are they allowed to post those pictures—no matter how graphic—on Facebook or other social networking sites? Does management have anything to say about it? Can they do anything about it? Should they?

These questions also came up in a conversation I had the other day with W. (Winnie) Ann Maggiore while we were driving up to a nearby pueblo. As a practicing attorney and JEMS columnist, she’s the one with the legal answers, or at the very least, the legal parameters. I, naturally, have more questions than answers; I’m more concerned with motivation, intent and the personal/social consequences of the behavior.

Motivation, Intent & Consequences
Why would someone take pictures of an accident or crime scene? We have the obvious answers:

One, they’re a reporter and making the information available to the general public (or a segment of it). The motivation is to record the event in as much detail as possible and with as little interpretation as possible. The intent is to make it available to those who want or need to know about it, both today and for posterity. And the consequences, hopefully, are to uphold the Constitution and preserve the republic and a free press. As Winnie said to me, “We’re not reporters. And if we’re doing our jobs properly and thoroughly, when are we going to have time to walk around taking pictures or shooting video?”

Two, they’re a professor, teacher or counselor. The motivation is similar to that of the reporter: to record the event accurately. The intent is to make it available as a learning tool for those who want or need to know about it. The consequences, hopefully, are to train better EMS personnel and preserve their wellbeing.

Three, they’re writing a book. The motivation is, once again, to record the event for the purposes of communicating about it in some way to either the general or academic population. The intent is to share some aspect of either the work or personal experience. The consequences, one would hope, would be to enlighten, enrich or ennoble those reading about it.

Four, they’re a narcissist. This is the kind of person for whom almost everything that happens in life is about the self. Including their work. Including your work. And including, in this case, your accident, your pain, your tragedy and your losses. They may record it for a number of reasons: to show it off to their friends who are not first responders, to “get girls or guys” at a bar by bragging at someone else’s expense, or to fling it around the Internet to see how many links or site hits they can get, a cyber substitute for the ooohs and ahhhhs they’d otherwise get by showing it at the local pub.

Five, they’re a voyeur and a sadist. This is the worst of the possibilities and, as anyone who’s worked in the field (whether that’s EMS, law enforcement or mental health) knows, it’s getting more common. Some say that’s in large part due to the Internet and video games. That’s a possibility. But regardless of the reason for the emotional and psychical disconnect, the fact is that there are more of them both in the field and in the world than I care to count.

In this scenario, the motivation is salacious. The intent is to simultaneously expose, harm and enjoy. And the consequences are hurtful emotionally, spiritually and mentally to everyone involved, including the sadist, even if he doesn’t know or admit it.

Motivation and intent, although not always weighing in at a premium in a court of law, are, in my world, of paramount importance. There’s a big difference between a needy fool and a sadist, and light years between teachers and braggarts.

Do the photos hurt the families or the victims? Possibly.

Very recently, there was a big hubbub about an Associated Press (AP) photographer and reporter who recorded the last moments of a young Marine’s life. The family was understandably pained by the AP’s decision to go ahead with publication. Politicians came out on record against it. I don’t doubt that were more than a few calls from the military to get it squashed. But in this case (whether you agree with the decision or not), there were considerations of free speech in a war situation that made it all vastly more complicated and more comprehensible.

The picture, the video, the story and the audio were all released to the public. The motivation: to record a war that has up until this point seemed very remote and disconnected from most Americans’ everyday experience. The intent: to increase awareness. The consequences: The family felt betrayed and hurt. The AP felt morally compelled to stand by their decision.

What do we do with this when we’re at an accident scene and we’re not reporters standing on the First Amendment? When we’re just doing our jobs and something unusual is happening and we feel the need to pull out our cameras or cell phones to capture the events as they unfurl?

Winnie has the legal answers, not me. But I’d like you to consider asking yourselves just one question before you push the “record” button or release the shutter.

Why are you taking the picture? If you don’t have a good answer, don’t take it.


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