Storm chaser who photographed dying 5-year-old takes heat, offers defense

The double tornado that wrecked the tiny town of Pilger, Neb., created a haunting scene — crumpled grain bins, homes ripped open, land picked clean.

But it was the image of a dying 5-year-old that stuck in many people’s minds. And the photojournalist who captured it is now facing criticism.

Storm chaser Mark Farnik said he photographed the girl from the right side because, from the left, “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.” The photo published in newspapers and by news wires, including the Associated Press, shows two first responders carrying Calista Dixon’s body across a pile of rubble.

The Washington Post also published the image.

Farnik said his picture has been “showered with a lot of praise, but also blasted with a lot of criticism.” The argument: the family’s right to privacy versus the public’s right-to-know.

Some voiced their opinions on social media:

 

 

 

On his Facebook page, “Photojournalist Storm Invictus,” Farnik defends his decision to use the image:

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.

However, the controversy comes just a few weeks after a comment was posted on a Facebook page matching Farnik’s username and likeness stating, “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.”

It was posted as a comment below a June 3 post:

Farnik did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment early Wednesday.

The photo of the child, which he posted on his Facebook page, had nearly 2,500 “likes,” was shared more than 1,700 times and had close to 300 comments Wednesday morning.

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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