This issue comes up every couple of years, whenever the photo warrants. In part because it raises some pretty significant questions, questions which will never be adequately answered to anyone's satisfaction. And the first one that always gets asked is, "Why didn't the photographer save him/her?" Of course, the question that should be asked is- would I have saved him or her? And if 99.99% of those who asked themselves were open and honest, they would simply reply, "I have no fucking clue!" Of course, nearly everyone fancies doing the right thing- and everyone loves being the hero. Truth is very (very) few are the latter, which is why only a handful truly earn the title. Thousands passed that shoeless man on that cold night in Times Square recently- and only one did the right thing, and that was far from an "heroic act."
Wesley Autrey is one person who is very much a hero. He actually did what so many others can only dream of... in their very worst of nightmares. And like all true heroes, he was lucky beyond belief- lucky the person he rescued did not thrash about in panic, lucky the trench they jumped into was deep enough to hold them both (they are not uniform in size) while the train passed harmlessly over them. Had it been but two inches shallower, there are those who would have labeled him 'Fool' at his own funeral.
That uneasy and life defining borderline between bravery and foolhardiness is a decision that gets crossed between seconds. James Nachtwey has personally intervened and saved lives on location. Why would he choose to not only put himself within the line of fire, but directly within the gun sights? Why place himself within the picture frame, beyond the measure of self preservation? Perhaps it's altruism in its truest sense, or perhaps 'nothing more' than a way to ease the recurring nightmares. Only he can say, maybe. But it's a safe bet that if such behavior were the norm, he would be neither photographer, nor alive.
The fact that a person is a photo/journalist does not mean that they have an increased responsibility to personally intervene in a matter of life or death; neither does it magically absolve them because they are a professional- or anyone else at hand. We can bullshit ourselves till the cows come home as to when or why someone, anyone has the responsibility, opportunity or wherewithal to risk life and limb for the sake of an-other. Truth is, unless you or I are in that place, at that time, neither of us have the slightest clue...