Documentary photography a ‘complex, deeply emotional’ process


The gripping wonder of a snapshot in time - and the sobering moral freight that often comes with it - took the spotlight during a recent presentation at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

"Moral Dilemmas in Documentary Photography," hosted by professor Daniel Teitelbaum, M.D., was an Arts in Medicine program, part of the Arts and Humanities in Health Care series. About 75 people attended the session in Education 2 North.

Teitelbaum, an adjunct professor in the Colorado School of Public Health, showed the audience some of the most iconic documentary photos taken in the 20th century - of war, Nazi operatives, famine, campus shootings - and gave insight into the people behinds the lens. His presentation included audio clips of the photographers talking about their work and historians who explained the circumstances of particular photographs.

Moral dilemmas are infused in the daily work of a war photographer. Vietnam war photographer Larry Burrows contemplated his work in an somber audio clip. He said he often caught himself wondering if it's right to capitalize on the grief and suffering of others. He concluded, "If I can contribute to the understanding of what others are going through then there's a reason for doing it."

Teitelbaum also highlighted famous photos by World War II photographer Robert Capa, whose mantra was, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

"Is it OK to send someone to dangerous places to get these pictures or have a photographer want to get these?" Teitelbaum said, noting that both Capa and Burrows were killed while on assignment. "What are we feeding when we do this?"

Other iconic photos included chilling portraits of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, and Alfred Krupp, famed industrialist and condemned World War II criminal. The Goebbels photograph is a favorite because of its impact, Teitelbaum said. "I wanted to put it in a vault and show it to my grandchildren, so they could see what evil is all about."

The stark reality is that photographers wouldn't choose this very dangerous profession if not for the demand of people to "eat these photographs with our morning breakfast," Teitelbaum said.

"I think it's clear that the whole process of making a documentary photograph is complex, it is deeply emotional. It presents a dilemma for the photographer and for the subject," he said. "Then the editor comes along and shows us one frame. ... In a single frame, much of what happens is we read the picture and bring our own emotional baggage into it. The dimensions are hundreds."