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|| News Item: Posted 2004-12-16

Shooting from the Hip: They Got Ethics
By Scott Sommerdorf

Photo by Bill Eppridge

Photo by Bill Eppridge

Eppridge kept his wits about him and made one of the most important pictures in this nation's history when Bobby Kennedy was assasinated in 1968
Their decisions were separated by 36 years, and each chose differently.

Two photographers faced with a problem they could not have seen coming defined ethics for themselves and for us. Rick Loomis in Iraq for the L.A. Times in 2004, and Bill Eppridge shooting for LIFE in 1968 made decisions - and pictures - that honored the values we should all aspire to. This became eloquently clear at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau held in Redondo Beach. Rick Loomis - in his presentation of his work from Iraq, and Bill Eppridge who showed a lifetime of work, taught us something deeper about handling yourself in tough situations.

During the "Got Ethics?" breakout session at the Luau, we had an opportunity to sort out a few ethical dilemmas also. It was 90 minutes with Rick Loomis (LA Times), Paul Whyte (USA TODAY), Mike Treola (Asbury Park Press) and myself that went by like it was twenty minutes. The expected things like PhotoShop manipulation, the value of credibility, and setting up photos were tossed around the room. Getting everyone's perspective on these things was excellent - especially the point when we decided that when you meet people on assignment that are surprised to find out that you don't want to set up a picture, that's your opportunity to be the "Johnny Appleseed" of documentary photojournalism, and explain the values that are the foundation of our industry.

In this business we often discuss and rehash ethical dilemmas --- this is a valuable thing to do. But we have the benefit of hindsight for most of these. As Loomis' and Eppridge's experiences will show, you will probably not have the luxury of time to decide what to do. What this means is that you have to react from instinct to do what you feel is right. The time to find out what you believe in, and be prepared to act to support those views in the moment.

As Loomis wrote in a story published here ( "These decisions are guttural, instinctive. Every move seems to be analyzed in some split second thought process."

Loomis found himself forced to choose between shooting the picture, and possibly saving a life. He chose to help carry a wounded Marine to safety. He explained to us that he still wonders if he let down the paper by not shooting those pictures, but felt ultimately that he was true to his values to "… be a human first". He had about a second to decide, but because he of a lesson he learned very early from a respected photo professor, he made his choice quickly.

That will seem familiar when you hear about Eppridge.

Eppridge was assigned to follow Robert Kennedy throughout his run for the Presidency in 1968. He had a very specific list of things the magazine wanted him to capture about the charismatic RFK. He shared the list with us at his talk, and then showed us the photos that fulfilled those requests. He captured RFK's unique connection to the people - especially young women, his hair (which was long for the time), the haunting relationship with his brother John. All of these were represented in brilliant, classic images. Then - in an instant the story changed.

Photo by John Templeton (Video Frame Grab)

Photo by John Templeton (Video Frame Grab)

Rick Loomis runs for cover.
As Eppridge waited for Kennedy to exit the stage in Los Angeles, he was well aware and prepared for the usual exit routine led by Bill Barry, the Senator's bodyguard. The plan was always to leave through a different door than you came in - but for some reason RFK decided to go back toward the kitchen. Shortly thereafter as Eppridge struggled to get back into position, he heard shots. While horrified about what he knew must have happened, he explained that "…this was history, and it was my job to record it". He also knew in the instant he had to think this through, that there were many doctors already in the kitchen with the Senator, and that influenced his decision to keep shooting. "They knew far better how to handle such a case, medically."

Eppridge, like Loomis also had to react from his gut, and depend on his instincts.

He told us about another photographer who actually threw his camera down and stopped shooting after the horror of the moment was clear. Another decision had been made in the moment, based on another set of beliefs. But Eppridge kept his wits about him and made one of the most important pictures in this nation's history.

As a heartbroken twelve year-old I remember that night, and his presentation brought back that sadness and depression. I was able to tell him what a difference his pictures made in my life as I took my place in the receiving line after photographer Davis Barber who also told Eppridge how his photos moved him to become a photographer. Another life changed by a decision made in an instant.

After our discussions in the ethics class, and then seeing the Eppridge presentation, I was struck by the symmetry between his decision to keep making pictures after the RFK shooting and Loomis' decision to not shoot and help that soldier to safety. Two opposite, but correct decisions I think, and fascinating when you reflect on the idea that both were made in an instant without much time for conscious thought. Which says a lot about how one's ethics need to be so ingrained and instinctive.

Keep your values as a foundation of who you are as a journalist. Make sure you know what they are. Based on the experiences of these two men, you may never see the time coming when you'll need to make a choice that will make a profound difference for you, your subjects, and possibly even history.

(Scott Sommerdorf is a freelance photographer in the Bay Area and former Director of Photography at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter on issue facing photojournalism.)

Related Links:
Scott Sommerdorf's member page

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