I was walking from work to the train station in Manhattan last week when I passed the aftermath of a horrible car accident. Sixth Avenue was blocked off from 41st to 42nd, cops were everywhere, and ambulance sirens wailed in the background as they tried to get through rush hour traffic.
The street was marked with yellow tape and scores of people lined the sidewalks, gawking at an overturned car. It was a mangled black Cadillac SUV perched upside down on its dented roof right in front of Bryant Park.
I heard onlookers saying the car was going too fast and hit a bus when it turned onto 6th. The news junkie in me instinctively whipped out my phone to take a photo. I was trying to get a good angle when I saw a stiff plastic bag hanging out of a back window.
There were murmurs among the crowd that there was a body inside the bag, and there could be other dead passengers in the wreckage. I found out later the driver was the only person in the car when it crashed, and the 44-year-old male victim had a heart attack and was pronounced dead at the hospital. (For more details on the crash click here.)
I later discovered that what we thought was a body was actually the airbags sticking out of the shattered car windows. But even when we all believed we could be staring at as many as three dead bodies, almost every person on the street was snapping pictures with a smart phone.
To have evidence when recounting the story to friends? To send to a news site? To post it on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook?
As I stood there gaping at the grim scene, I felt sorry for the victim… and sorry for where we are as a culture. It’s difficult for some of us to experience life’s impactful moments these days without resisting the need to document and share them.
Was it the great emotional jolt of the moment? Or the “I was there when it happened” cache? Or the peer pressure to capture it because everyone else is?
I sheepishly walked away feeling guilt and regret for not being able to resist photographing someone else’s tragedy.
This is the age we live in.
Anyone younger than 25 won’t even question the impulse to record every moving moment, even if the moment itself is interrupted or sacrificed in order to capture it.
But for old fogies like me, it still feels unnatural and wrong.
Apparently not wrong enough. There I was, one of a hundred minions taking a picture. And here I am sharing it with you.
If I’m using the photo to make a point, is it acceptable? I’m not sure.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.