Would you have taken this photograph? Would you have posted it on a railfan website?
I can answer “yes” to both those questions. Let me tell you about what happened.
The photograph shows Gary Bensman eating a sandwich in the engineer’s seat of Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive No. 765 in Ashtabula, Ohio, last July.
The locomotive was being ferried to Youngstown for Saturday and Sunday excursions on the Youngstown Line of Norfolk Southern.
The 765 and its train went into a siding in Ashtabula to get a pilot crew and to wait for the westbound NS train 145 to go past.
This photograph wasn’t planned. I was waiting for the 765 to move on when I noticed that the engineer – I didn’t know his name at the time – was eating a sandwich.
At that point my journalistic instincts took over.
I posted this image with other photographs of the NKP 765 on TrainOrders.com. I posted most of those images on the steam board where they were well received.
That was where I learned the identity of this engineer and that he has pulled the throttle on many, if not most, of the mainline steam locomotives in America.
But I posted this and some other photos on the eastern railroads board and that is when the “fun” started.
Shortly after those images went up, a guy I know casually and who lives in the Akron area wrote a one-line comment suggesting the photograph was a little too personal.
Another irate poster changed the heading to use the word “inappropriate” and spewed some ridiculous rhetoric.
I should have expected such comments, but somehow I didn’t and they caught me by surprise.
No one likes having their work criticized even if you have to expect that when you perform for the public. By the afternoon, a few other critical comments had been posted and I became angry.
As much as anything I was upset because none of the critics explained why he thought the photograph was inappropriate, too personal or wrong.
Instead, they just gave one-liners that said little more than “I don’t like it.” No one seemed to grasp the story that the photograph sought to tell.
* * * * *
It had been a long day for the NKP 765 crew. They had gone on duty early that morning and waited in Rockport Yard for permission to leave. Then they had to wait for a parade of NS trains to go past or around them.
Such is life for a ferry move of a steam locomotive.
By the time they reached Ashtabula it was late afternoon and there were still many miles to go before tying up for the day.
They didn’t have the luxury of stopping for a lunch break. In such circumstances you grab a bite to eat when and where you can. Bensman was eating a sandwich he had brought along and ate while sitting in the engineer’s seat.
The photograph illustrates a facet of the life of a steam locomotive crew. Yet that seemed lost on some who viewed and commented on this image.
* * * * *
Implied in the criticism of the photograph is the belief that I invaded the engineer’s privacy. In that way of thinking, eating is a private matter that is not of public concern and therefore should not be photographed.
And what about the fact that the engineer was eating his sandwich in a place where he could be seen by others?
The response might be, “Well, that’s true, but you don’t photograph people engaging in private moments even when they can easily be seen in public.”
And therein lies the crux of the matter and how my thinking differs from that of many railfans.
Kenneth Kobré is the author of a textbook on photojournalism used in college-level photojournalism courses.
He writes in the first chapter that candid photographs are what set photojournalism pictures apart from other types of photography. “The photojournalism style depends on catching candid moments,” Kobré wrote.
And that is what I saw when I noticed the engineer of the NKP 765 eating a sandwich.
As I read the one-liners from those who thought this photograph was inappropriate, I was reminded of final exam of a photojournalism course that I taught a couple years ago.
I showed my students a photo made by Arne Svenson, a professional photographer who makes images of people going about their lives inside their apartments in New York City.
Svenson uses a telephoto lens that he aims from the street or an adjacent building toward the windows of apartments to make photographs.
His approach is controversial because none of those he photographs are aware that they are being captured nor does he seek their permission before displaying their images in galleries or selling his work.
I would not do what Svenson does. I draw a line between what people do in their homes where they can expect a high degree of privacy and what they do in public where they should expect to be seen by others.
A steam locomotive attracts a lot of attention. There aren’t that many of them that are operational and when they travel large number of people turn out to watch.
Many of those spectators will make photographs of the locomotive and its crew. The NKP 765 crew knows this. They also know that much of what they do will be seen by the public.
They can expect their activities to be photographed, including taking a lunch break while sitting in a place where they can easily be seen.
That argument probably won’t win over the critics of this photograph. They would probably respond with, “yeah, but you still shouldn’t have posted this photograph.”
* * * * *
One of those who responded pointed out that the image showed what could easily be seen in a public place and therefore by law was not an invasion of privacy. That’s correct but doesn’t address the underlying ethical issue.
I hammer home the point when teaching that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical.
On the same exam in which I posed questions about the ethical dimensions of the work of Arne Svenson, I also showed an image made by a photographer working on behalf of a wire service.
The image showed a woman grieving at a memorial in honor of the 26 people killed in a December 2012 shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The woman was angry because the photographer did not ask her permission before making the photograph.
“All of a sudden I hear ‘click click click click click’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal,” she said later.
The photographer, Emmanuel Dunand, later told National Public Radio that he was simply doing his job of making photos to “help tell the story to the world.” He said he didn’t ask for the woman’s permission in order to not bother her and to respect her private moment.
A lot of people probably won’t buy Dunand’s explanation and that’s fine.
Yet I see a difference between photographing someone who is grieving and someone who is engaging in a mundane everyday life activity.
I understand that a personal moment is a personal moment. But not all personal moments are alike. Some are more personal than others.
A person eating a sandwich in public is not in as vulnerable of a position as a person grieving shortly after a tragic event.
* * * * *
I’ve never worked as a railroader so I can’t speak from experience as to what it is like to go to work and be subjected to being photographed because others find your work and your employer’s equipment to be fascinating.
Few people find what I’ve done for a living to be fascinating enough to photograph.
Some railroaders don’t like being photographed while on the job while others are indifferent about it.
What bothers those who dislike being photographed at work is their lack of control. They have no way of stopping photographers from making images or showing them to others.
I understand Dunand’s point about just doing his job. I also understand the point made by the grieving woman of feeling violated during a highly personal moment.
The courts pretty much have settled the conflict of whether it is or is not an invasion of privacy to photograph someone without their permission if their activities occur or can easily be seen in a public place. The ethical issue, though, is far from settled and probably never will be.
To be sure, there are nuances in the law and not everything done in public is fair game for photographers. But your public activities are public property to a degree that makes many people uncomfortable.
Ideally, photographers should always ask permission before photographing others. But it doesn’t always work that way.
* * * * *
The vast majority of railroad-oriented photographs that I’ve seen online or in railroad club programs are devoid of people.
It’s a challenge to make human-interest photographs when track side because the machinery dwarfs and obscures those operating it.
Most of those who enjoy photographing railroad operations are primarily interested in the machines and not necessarily those who operate them.
Photographs such as the one I posted above are not the norm in railfan world and some would rather keep it that way.
I don’t know if Gary Bensman saw this photograph or what he thought about it if he did. I wasn’t thinking about that when I made the image or when I posted it. I simply saw a moment and recorded it.
It told a story and ultimately that is what photographers do. They tell stories with images.
All of us who consider ourselves photographers must decide what type of stories that we will and will not tell with our photographs. Our work reflects those choices that we’ve made and the values that we bring to the endeavor of photography.