R. Budd Dwyer’s very public suicide…
The case of Robert Budd Dwyer provided photojournalism with one of its greatest dilemma’s of the last century. In 1987 R. Budd Dwyer was the treasurer for the state of Pennsylvania, a man who had fallen far from grace having been found guilty of bribery and corruption. Having held the post for almost six years from 1981 until January 1987 Dwyer was awaiting sentencing for taking a kickback of some $300,000 for helping a California-based accounting firm win a multi-million dollar compensation contract for Pennsylvanian state workers who had overpaid on their taxes.
Dwyer protested the allegation and even sought a Presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan who promptly ignored it and by the middle of January 1987 found himself facing a prison term of fifty-five years and a $300,000 fine. The day before sentencing Dwyer called a press conference and in front of a group of journalists, TV and stills cameramen, friends and colleagues delivered a rambling speech protesting his innocence and lambasting the justice system.
At the close of his speech he handed out three envelopes; one for the state governor, one containing an organ donor card and the third, a suicide letter to his wife. At that point he picked up a large manila envelope and pulled out a Smith & Wesson revolver. As the cameras continued to roll he pleaded to those gathered to “please leave if this will affect you”. As onlookers approached and pleaded for him to stop he warned them not to and within fifteen seconds had put the barrel in his mouth and shot himself through the head. Photographers Gary Miller and Paul Vathis captured the moments in near perfect sequence, from holding the gun to his chest to placing it in his mouth, to the moment the bullet penetrates his head and finally to his body slumped on the floor with blood pouring from his nose.
As the word spread the newspaper editors were facing a huge dilemma, should they print the pictures by Miller/Vathis/AP or should they respect the family and the sensitivity of many of their readers? One photojournalist described it as “a publicity crime and how it was a perfect example of how the press were used” One editor who refused to publish the shots argued they would never assign someone to photograph a suicide so why should they print ones just because a photographer happened to be there whilst another who did publish argued that they were not in the business of not reporting.
Retro Culturati has seen all of the images, the video is available online somewhere if you are minded to search such a thing out. Whilst the final three stills of him putting the gun in his mouth to pulling the trigger and laying dead on the floor are the more dramatic the first image by Gary Miller tells much more. This captures the moment he has revealed the gun to the stunned audience, some think it’s a hoax, others believe he will shoot them. His hand is outstretched telling others to stay back and the dreadful scene is finally played out.
The ultimate question for any photojournalist and editor has and always will be one of integrity. How far does one go in reporting a news event? At what point does one decide what is in the public interest and what isn’t? Should the photographer self-govern at the time of the event or should there be no limit to what they record?
Dwyer’s death was recorded and aired in various edits by television stations. There would be numerous jokes made about him and his suicide along with the general consensus that he killed himself whilst still in office in order for his wife to receive full state benefits following the crippling court costs. Ultimately it is a story of a shattered family and a reminder of the news story in all of its connotations for better and for worse.