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“Safe space,” and a journalist’s role within it

by on October 16, 2016

An important question has been arising time and time again recently about the topic of “safe spaces,” and a journalists actions when they come across a space being called one. This question, or series of questions, I had to ask myself a couple weeks ago on the UMass Amherst campus. While working as a photo editor for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, I was asked to photograph a vigil for police violence going on on one of the lawns. The Daily Collegian had been personally invited to cover the event by its organizers, through email.

I got to the Metawampe Lawn early, along with another Collegian photographer and an Amherst Wire photographer, and began taking photos of the crowd. The first photo I took was of a woman burning sage around her peers. As I was taking the photo, she looked up, noticed me, and walked right over asking to delete the photo. After explaining who I was, who I worked for and what the photograph was being used for, she still insisted on the deletion of the photo. This became the first of many ethical decisions I had to make that night. The gathering was taking place at a public university, on public land, and was a public event, and so I had no legal reason to need to delete the photo, and yet ethically it did not seem worth it to argue in order to keep a non-defining photograph, and so I deleted it and moved on.

The rest of the event was going rather smoothly, with people enthusiastically giving their names and being receptive to what I was there to do. There was a section of the program where audience members were invited to take the mic and speak, and that is where quick decisions had to be made on my and the other photographer’s parts. One woman holding a sign took the microphone and began speaking about how there were white photographers at the vigil taking everyone’s photos, and how that was not okay. She related her story of how a photographer took her photo earlier, and did not ask for permission before taking it. There were some cheers from the crowd, and then the attention turned to the Amherst Wire photographer, who just so happened to be standing at the front of the crowd, facing the people, taking overall photos. I was towards the front but more off to the side, and the other Collegian photographer was in the middle of the crowd. Members of the crowd began yelling at the Wire photographer, telling him to stop taking pictures and to leave the lawn immediately, with some people yelling “Leave!,” “Don’t take our picture!,” and “Bye!” One woman even went so far as to ask the question of why white people were even there at the gathering, since it was affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The gathering was then referred to as a “safe space.”

This exchange of words and shouts instantly raised ethical flags in the minds of me and my fellow photographers at the vigil. Do we leave? Do we stay? Do we continue to shoot or put down the cameras? Do we ask for permission before taking the photos? How do you do that with a larger crowd shot? How do you represent a crowd where most people are receptive, but others angry? Ultimately what all three of us appeared to decide to do was stay put where we were for about 10-15 minutes, but to not continue to take photos. Even though we had the right to photograph, the consequences of continuing to do so seemed to outweigh the benefits. I felt that even though I had “the right” to continue photographing, that does not mean it is the most ethical choice.

Upon returning to the office, we noticed an email from one of the people we had photographed, requesting that the photo of her and her friends that they had previously given us permission to use not be published. We then started a conversation with our editor in chief, in order to decide how to proceed. We started by deciding that we would not use the photos of people who had requested us not to, as well as photos of white gatherers. We decided this because with so many emotions and a strong message from the event, we did not think it was ethical to have white people be the faces of the gathering, even though there were many in attendance. We then decided to not use any large group shots, since there were many people within the crowd who did not wish to be photographed. After putting those photos aside, it left us with about two viable photos depicting the hands of people holding candles, and depicting a woman who had given me her name and permission in the moment. Our next question was whether we should use a photo at all at that point, since any photo could potentially receive backlash. Upon reflection and discussion, we decided to not publish any photos with our story on the vigil. For the online version, we just used a photo of the ILC, a building next to the lawn where the vigil took place. It was originally going to be the front-page photo for the next day’s paper, but we decided that the photo would not be worth the possible backlash or ethical dilemmas.

The main questions facing us as journalists, photographers, and people were whether or not to delete photos, to stay or not after a small group of people make it clear you are not welcome, to continue shooting or not, whether to use photographs that we were previously given permission and names to use and then asked not to, and whether to publish any photos of such an event in general, and if so which ones. Another overall question was how to cover marginalized groups that you are not a part of. This dilemma is extremely similar to the clash between a student journalist and protesters at the University of Missouri in 2015. As an article from The Washington Post mentioned, “Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.” The question now becomes, what is “fair,” or “ethical?” And who is allowed to cover it? There is definitely still discussion to be had in the journalism world, and a need for a better dialogue between journalists and these groups that feel threatened by the media.

What would you have done in our situation? What is a journalist’s role within these “safe spaces,” and how do we navigate them?


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One Comment
  1. aoates1995 permalink

    This is definitely a sensitive topic that is not easy to answer. Personally, I would have thought of all possible outcomes when going to an event like this. Yes you were personally invited by BSU, but with a racially charged issue, I would have made sure to have at least ONE black photographer representing the Collegian or Wire.
    Although BSU invited you guys, this was still a public event, meaning anyone was welcome to come (including those who would not have agreed to be photographed.)
    In terms of publishing the images, I would have published images that either did not show faces or the ones that were originally given consent. I would have made it clear that the Collegial/Wire had no intention of being intrusive. Rather, you are trying to shine a light on the hurt and pain of the people at the vigil.

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