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The year the beast came to life

There are many possible reasons why firefighters are compelled to take and publicly post pictures of themselves in action


Photo Boris Minkevich/Winnipeg Free Press
This Free Press photo showed a firefighter posing as another snapped a cell phone photo 12 months ago, which prompted an investigation.

The fire service has become the very essence of the “look at me” culture. In 2010, we watched videos of clownish fireground antics, we watched cell phone pictures of fires and crashes; many posted on social networking sites before the emergency was over. But more than anything we saw that we posted, blogged, and exhibited ourselves without even a nascent sense of the critical self-reflection so necessary for our survival.

It is easy to blame the black eyes the fire service got this year on a nebulous group of “look at me” people amongst the ranks, but we should admit that the issues are much deeper than that. The idea of “look at me” threatens the sanctity of our collective relationship with the people we claim to serve. How can we serve them while we expend so much energy getting them to look at us?

There comes a point, a point we are close to reaching, where the incessant drive to take pictures and videos of ourselves becomes a vulgar sidetrack that not only distracts us from our primary mission but also encourages us to behave differently, strangely, perhaps even violating the unwritten contract between us and the citizens we serve.

If you are posing for pictures in front of the burnt out shell of a house while the family tries to figure out where they are going to live, what are you really saying? “Look at me and then believe me when I say that I can take pictures and save a life at the same time, that I can focus on me and focus on the team at the same time?” I don’t believe it. We can never convince the public or policy makers that we are there for them as long as we are screaming for them to look at us.

There are many possible reasons why firefighters are compelled to take and publicly post pictures of themselves in action. I think it points to twofold problem.

The first problem is increasing infatuation with the hero culture as an end to itself, especially as promulgated after 9/11. As Joan Didion remarked after 9/11, "...In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word ‘hero’ that we began to hear what would become … an entrenched preference of ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattering celebration of its victims…"

Her quote is relevant to picture-taking by firefighters inasmuch as there is nothing to take pictures of without victims. There is no such thing as a fire or a crash without a victim. However, our pictures tend to ignore the victim, focusing attention on the firefighter. This somehow seems unfair.

The second problem is how the recent financial crisis has forced most governmental bodies to reevaluate the extent and purpose of fire protection, an evaluation that undermines the firefighter as hero culture.

Has the rapid decline in the “hero” status led to increased picture taking as a method for reinforcing our importance to society by imbuing us with value vis a vis our images of self?Susan Sontag noted that, “To photograph is to confer importance … there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects.” But the pictures we are most fond of are the pictures of ourselves, and therein is where the sublimely dangerous part of the practice lies.

Many firefighters argue that they have the right take and distribute photographs of incidents. They also claim that those photographs are part of a public record. (More often the claim is that they are for “training.”)

But when the firefighter is working — career or volunteer — he/she is acting as an extension of the elected political public service; he or she is — or should be — held to a higher ethical standard. Political ethics, “seek(s) only to make public policy better by making public officials more accountable.” (1) We owe it to the people we serve to be more accountable than they are.

It is not a radical change in morality that forces us to confront this problem; it is the portability, availability, and affordability of the camera primarily. Secondarily it is the pervasiveness of the Internet that has made the beast come to life. It is a challenge that we cannot walk away from because when a video goes viral it tells its own story; often out of context, uncontrollable, and forever linked to each of us.

The camera can encourage us to behave in ways that we might not otherwise have considered. Consider Errol Morris’ film about the torture scandals at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. Their eagerness to document themselves seemed to blind them to the consequences of creating a record of their actions. The pictures not only resulted in the guards’ downfall, but they may have fed their ugliest impulses.

As Morris says, “I often think that if cameras had not been present, these events would not have occurred.” (2) We all know that guy with the helmet cam did not spend all that money to not get a good shot. “What is he more concerned with,” the viewer is forced to ask, “the shot or the job that he was supposed to do?” They want me to believe that they are not conscious of the camera and that they do what they are supposed to do despite the camera. I don’t believe it.

Firefighters don’t seem to get that the camera may really be Medusa daring them to stare into her eyes. Think about this before you post your next picture. As we move forward into 2011, we must shift our focus away from ourselves and back to the people who matter most; the citizens. Prometheus was similarly headstrong but he probably wished away his liver before it was over; let’s hope that we don’t say the same thing one day about our helmet cams. We must be careful not to create the monsters that devour us.


(1) “The Ethics Edge” Edited by E. Berman, J. West, S. Bonczek . 1998 International City/County Management Association. Washington D.C.


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