A couple of years ago I wrote about finding the balance between taking photographs of a moment versus actually experiencing the moment (When is the Experience?). Through a much more somber and serious lens I was reminded of those thoughts today when I noticed that Life magazine has just released a series of previously unpublished photographs taken on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva were on the scene that evening. Groskinsky captured some scenes that are graphic in their simplicity, and hauntingly revealing. One can sense the vacuum that has been created in the lives of the people in these photos. The question that springs to my mind, and Groskinsky admits to having similar thoughts on his mind – is this documentation or invasion? Is it exploitation even? I am initially partial to it being documentation. He takes a very limited number of shots. He explains how he gauged the emotions and withdrew quite quickly. His images allow the viewer to engage with the firsthand emotions, confusion, and emptiness of this historical event. However, it was also a very personal event for number of people, some present in the photographs and some not. For family and others closest to events such as these, it is firstly a personal event, rather than a societal and historical one, and because of that, one must still question just how intrusive these images can be, especially today. Tragedies in our current culture are captured by media in a completely different fashion then they were some forty years ago. There are many examples of how the recording of tragedy is an instantaneous and collective exercise in our world. Two came quickly to mind as I reflected on this issue: the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and the recent bombings in Moscow. Video and photos of these tragic incidents were available around the world to anyone with an internet connection mere moments after they had occurred. In both of these cases I found the display of these tragedies to be intrusive, rather than informative. While I am aware that the means of documenting world events has changed forever, and there should be no going back, but I question at what point it is acceptable for a passenger on the Moscow metro to film people writhing in agony so it can be posted on Youtube? Is this necessary in order to allow us to properly connect with the historical and personal nature of this event, or is it simply intrusion? Would it have been alright if it was a journalist and we had been warned with a disclaimer on the news before it was shown?
I have a lot of questions tonight, and few answers. Perhaps I feel Groskinsky’s shots are acceptable because he did seem to feel there was consent. However, life events happen without consent, and there is much to be learned and felt from documenting both personal and historical milestones. Perhaps it is not the act of capturing the event itself I am taking issue with, but the decisions as to what material should be published, and when it should be published, I am most concerned about. Forty-two years between King’s death and the viewing of these black and white photographs put a lot of space between the viewer and the event. As with many things in life, the role of timing in our emotional connections cannot be underestimated. Perhaps some sort of answer lies in more reflection on the balance of timing in publishing, and the affect on personal emotions.