Just weeks after saying he wanted to see "some highly destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially," a storm chaser's picture of a dying 5-year-old tornado victim is spreading rapidly, and the chaser has had to defend himself for choosing to publish it.
I will not post the graphic picture here on The Vane, but it remains on storm chaser Mark Farnik's "Photojournalist Storm Invictus" Facebook page. The picture shows two rescuers carrying five-year-old Calista Dixon's gray, battered, lifeless body across a rubble-strewn landscape towards an ambulance.
Farnik justified posting the photograph on his Facebook page and selling it to the media in the face of extremely heavy criticism.
In the last 24 hours, my life has changed. What started out as another storm chase in northeast Nebraska turned into a defining moment for me as a human being, and as a photojournalist, and also resulted in the most powerful, yet most difficult to make and look at image of my photojournalism career: A little girl, the victim of a powerful tornado, being rushed to an ambulance by medical personnel as she clung to life by a thread. Sadly, she succumbed to her injuries last night.
Since I created this image, I have been showered with a lot of praise, but also blasted with a lot of criticism. 'Why would you make a picture like that?!?! You're inhumane, you're a vulture, you're profiteering off the pain and suffering of others, you just don't take pictures of things like that!!!!' has been the resounding message.
Well, folks, I need to address this issue, and this picture, head on. Because you need to understand where I'm coming from, what I experienced, and why I had to make this picture.
Life is brutal. Life is harsh. And photojournalists have to bear witness to this, for better or for worse. And sometimes you have to make a choice of how to soften the impact of a bad situation to make it appropriate for publication. I photographed the EMT's and the girl from the right side, because when I first approached the scene, the entire left side of her body was battered and crushed, and frankly it was grisly and would have been completely inappropriate and truly hurtful to her family and friends. I had that photograph. It was deleted immediately after I processed my take.
For those of you who view me as 'inhumane' and a 'vulture': Do you want to know what it's like to make eye contact with a dying child as you photograph her being carried to an ambulance on a stretcher, and see the life within her eyes slowly fading to darkness? Can you hear the wailing of her badly injured mother, who knew that her daughter was dying as she lay there, unable to even say goodbye to her precious child and kiss her one final time? Do you know what its like to watch another human being slipping into the otherworld, and not be able to do a damn thing about it?
I saw. I heard. And I felt.
It was hard as hell to stand there and document what was unfolding before me. But I somehow managed to dig my heels in, keep my composure and make the image.
I hope and pray that none of you ever have to face something as terrible as I did yesterday. Because while photographing anyone who is dying is challenging, there is no greater heartbreak than to have your subject be a small child. After I was done making images, I went back to my vehicle and I completely broke down in tears. This moment in time will live with me the rest of my days.
But I stand unwaveringly by my decision to make this image. It is an uncomfortable image. It is a painful image. It hurts me to look at it. But damn it, it's important. This little girl's life was important. SHE MATTERED. And the human element is the essence of photojournalism;photojournalism would cease to have any meaning or impact without people in it.
What if Eddie Adams had turned away when the Vietnamese General Police Chief executed a Vietcong in front of him? What if Charles Porter, the photographer at the Oklahoma City bombing, had put down his camera when the firefighter cradled the body of the little toddler? I could name countless more instances where photographers could have flinched, but didn't.
This terrible storm took this little girl from her family and from Pilger, and this visual representation of their heartbreak is the grim representation of what happened in this small Nebraska town. It is not to be leered at or treated as a spectacle, but to show the depth of the tragedy, and to inspire compassion and charity.
For the sake of this child who was taken too soon, I encourage each and everyone of you to donate to Pilger, through Storm Assist and Prayers for Pilger, NE.
They have a vicious scar across their town, and an even deeper scar in their hearts. I pray that the family of this child may in time find peace from their devastating loss, and may we all extend our love and compassion to them in this grievous time.
Photojournalist Storm Invictus Farnik
He also announced that he is planning on starting a fundraiser to help with Calista's funeral costs as a result of "[his] very sad and tragic picture that has now been seen around the world."
The photo has been published in newspapers and on news websites (including on the AP Images website), a point which Farnik has used to justify his publishing the image.
However, two weeks ago, Farnik struck a dramatically different tone on his personal Facebook page, the posts on which are visible to the public.
In addition to complaining that a predicted tornado outbreak on June 3 didn't play out as anticipated, he said that he needed "some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially."
The criticism against his posting the picture falls back to the "decency versus right-to-know" argument, similar to the one seen after TMZ published a video taken shortly after the fatal car accident involving comedian Tracy Morgan.
Most of the comments against publish the picture reference concerns about the little girl's privacy. Wrote one person in the comments beneath the photo:
I'm glad sharing the most personal photo ever taken of this little girl eases YOUR pain. Unfortunately, you have decided that her loss is somehow your tragedy. This is a terrible narcissism. I wish I could agree that you have a right to do it but I find it hard to have the kind of sympathy for you that you seem to feel you deserve. What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish here?
I have reached out to Farnik to see how his comments about the busted tornado outbreak on June 4 mesh with his justification of publishing/selling the image of Calista Dixon yesterday. I will update this post with his comments if he responds.
[Top image via KETV]