While out recording some traffic ambience a week or so ago, a thought crossed my mind - and I'd be curious, especially from our fellow members who also do a lot of field recording, what your personal opinion on this (and/or have you ever encountered such a situation):

The situation could be anything catastrophic, such as a building fire igniting/spreading, a car crash/flip, even something as macabre as a distant handgun shot ringing out in the city. When I was out recording, vehicles at a certain intersection were moving both dangerously and dangerously fast that I found myself mumbling "watch and see, somebody's going to get T-boned right in front of the mic". Fortunately, no such situation happened.

Now when we record sirens in the city, we all think "oh cool, that sounds awesome", but maybe the siren is responding to something like a heart attack, a shooting, who knows. But in these cases we as humans are so far removed and dissociated from the intent of the siren that to our ears and mind it's just another, abstract city sound - 'business as usual' - there's no guilt, no question of ethics.

However, if you ever found yourself literally witnessing and capturing an unexpected and catastrophic event, what would you do? I mean, literally witness it unfold, not "oh, there's a fire down the street, let's go record it". Delete it out of respect? Save it for your private library with no intent to share it out of respect? Or be irreverent?

I am certainly not asking this to judge people or be insensitive, nor am I asking for someone to answer this for me. Personally, I would delete it out of respect. If I came to find out nobody was injured or killed, or example, and it was just an unfortunately situation, I might save it for private, internal use only - but only after careful scrutiny of the situation and whether it is still deemed as being tossed out out of respect (an example being: I am out recording in the wilderness, a giant boulder falls on my empty car - I would keep that, and likely only keep something of that ilk).

It is a very real situation to consider, and I'm curious what some of you might do if faced with such a situation. Or if you have been faced with such a situation before, what have you done? Again, more of a personal experience and opinion survey than a Yes/No answer.

6 Answers 6


I wouldn't be afraid to use any good recording I made for whatever purposes I needed them. Some of the greatest and most award winning photography in the history of the medium is of people in great pain or distress. That the photographer captured and then released the images doesn't detract from the art of what that was or from what that photographer was doing.

The same should go for recorded sounds. If I stumbled upon a street fight with my recorder in hand, I'd eval and then roll if I didn't have any options regarding breaking the fight up and if I didn't fear for my own safety.

If i'm rolling on traffic and someone does get Tboned right in front of the mic, I'm keeping it.


I think it's pretty obvious answer that to value a "rare" recording more than lives in danger would be a pretty dick thing to do. But no doubt that we/some tend to be dicks in many aspects, ignoring to help, when the loss or pain (which there always is) doesn't touch personally.

The good way to go, in my opinion, would be to react like reporters/journalists. They do work in scenes where there's or has just been violence, death, war or some sort of an emergency situation. And I think reporters/journalists might feel obliged to help however they can WHILE also doing the reporting, sort of balancing the two, but possibly/probably being more obliged to help than report, when the situation asks for it.

To record something (e.g. an ambulance siren) whose cause is too far removed from your location does not pose a moral problem, because there's not much you could do to help the victims / those in need of help.

If the recording could be perceived as offending (i.e. this guy was recording while people got killed), then I'd be careful about releasing the recording, because that just might hurt your reputation, if the recording or releasing the recording messages about having low moral standards.

  • Well, as I mentioned I don't believe there is an obvious Yes/No answer in the sense that people span the wide spectrum between ethical an irreverent, so "obvious" is all relative. I certainly agree with the point's you make, certainly some of the many reasons I would immediate blow out the recording. Nov 27, 2013 at 0:13
  • In regard to the journalism/reporter point, I feel there is a difference. We are content creators making money on creating something of fiction, not for documenting a reality or cause. So in this circumstance of capturing an unfortunately situation I feel our line of work is too exploitative by nature to be compared to reporters/journalists. Perhaps the equivalent of this reporter/journalism comparison though is bearing witness to the situation and willingly provide your recording as evidence if needed? Nov 27, 2013 at 0:18
  • A reputable content creator would probably set up a stunt rather than record a real situation, because of doing such a low moral thing might not do good for one's reputation. I think this has nothing to do with the profession, but humanity and common sense (which are both stripped off of any professional obligations or status). A recording that involves suffering cannot be more valuable than ending the suffering. If the industry values practicing low morals, then of course, I have nothing to say.
    – mavavilj
    Nov 27, 2013 at 0:33
  • I certainly agree with what you say, although we may be talking two different things here - I don't speak of using a real situation to substitute for something done in a controlled way. I speak of something completely unexpected and shocking happening in front of you, and you are sitting there in that state of shock of "what do I do", knowing you captured it without intention. Often people behave ethically, like we both agree is an appropriate course, but some people may just not. This is what sparks my curiosity. it's a touchy subject. Nov 27, 2013 at 0:44
  • Well in that case it's probably about if you can get away with releasing the recording so that you don't come across as irreverent or immoral. I guess it's more personal or decided on a case-basis then; when "the damage" has been done, then the recording doesn't matter, but it may be disrespectful or tasteless, if the event is well known or sounds terrifying. If it sounds neutral, then it should be ok.
    – mavavilj
    Nov 27, 2013 at 3:49

The only issue I see in this is at the moment of witnessing the event and whether one decides to help or not. If one has the ability to help then one should do so (and keep the recorder rolling). Apart from that, if you can't help, record away.

Later I would check that there's no personally identifiable speech on the recording but if it's just "foley" then keep it.

Who knows your recording of the event might help out later in analyzing what happened and might provide more useful than a "respectful" turning off of the recorder at the time.

Mind you, every single real life accident/disaster I've witnessed really didn't sound that great that I'd use a recording of it later for SD purposes.


I would answer this question by looking at art in general. Art is the expression of all that is human experience. Some art is beautiful and inspiring and some is dark and depressing. Both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, represent human experience for better or worse. The reality is that horrible things happen. Art will express this reality whether or not it is authentically sourced. If you want to include the sound of an ambulance siren in your piece of art, you are using it to express an experience (or to convey the essence of that experience).

Ethically speaking, there are a few things to consider, as you mentioned in your question. If the siren sample came from a real life experience, did you fulfill your civic obligation to make sure that everyone is safe and/or receiving the needed care? If so, I don't think that there are any ethical issues with using the sample in your art. I, and probably many others, would actually argue that it is more authentic and holds more meaning, and therefore does a better job of expressing the experience, i.e., more artful.

On the other hand, if you did not fulfill your civic obligation, perhaps to get a better recording, then the ethics get sticky. If you have a legitimate reason for not helping, like knowing that the ambulance is close and that there is little you could do, then I see the use of the sample as morally sound. If you watched a man die instead of saving him... not so much. If you can justify not helping, then I see it as morally useable.

Either way, this is still viably art and its ethical implications are for the artist to bear. Let's say you didn't help out, then feel awful about it. Your expression of that will be creatively driven by not only the experience itself but the ensuing guilt, which is an extension of that experience. The resultant art could be more creatively inspired and better convey the essence of the experience. This may be a 'better' piece of art but the artist may come to loathe its beauty.

You also need to consider the audience. If the man dies and the art you are making is for a commemorative video for the family... not good. If the sample is for a documentary about preventing suicide (assuming that's what the man did) to be viewed by a large audience, it is questionable but I think that it would provide the realism to get the audience invested in the serious subject matter.

Intention is another factor. If the art intends to make fun of something terrible, the morality is entirely subjective. In the art of Comedy, for another medium, jokes about pedophilia and rape are surprisingly prevalent but I am fairly certain that almost everybody, including the pedophiles and rapists themselves, would say that they are terrible things. These jokes still exist and I hear people, that I know have been victims, make and laugh at these jokes, while others find it offensive, including non-victims.

If your intention is to display the reality of a terrible thing, potentially to expose the injustice, then I see this as ethically sound. I think of the Pulitzer prize winning picture of the girl burned by napalm in the Vietnam War. This photo is horrific. It's right up there with the Holocaust photos. But it has this tangible quality that brings a morbid sense of beauty, like capturing a photo of a rare animal; you hear about it and know that it exists but seeing the picture makes it real.

Another thought to consider: What if it is generally agreed upon that an artist's choice to use a specific sample was ethically unsound? Would a third party using that sample have the same ethical implications? It would run through a similar ethical filter to the original but certain implications cannot be passed on to the replicator, such as not helping at the scene of an accident to get a better recording. These things sort of get 'stored' in the sample, making the replication harder to be seen as ethically sound but still easier than the original.

Ultimately, we are talking Ethics, perhaps the most subjective topic, next only to Emotion. The artist, other individuals, their society and the world at large will all have a different take on the ethical implications. In the current technological state we can readily have access to sample libraries and synthesized sounds; memes are constantly spread across the internet with different variations; videos stream at our desire. This expansion of media and increase in replication and variation bring a sort of anonymity to sample use and, with it, decreased ethical implications. In short, over saturation has decreased the likelihood that someone will realize the sample is authentically derived and the ethical implications are largely the artist's to bear.


Sorry, i should have read he site's instructions more thoroughly before trying to edit. Looks like I messed that one up! So on with a proper reply!

One dilemma I would have with running to help is, later would my equipment still be there and in the shape I left it?

If I'm recording some disaster and rush to help people, I may come back and find my equipment gone, knocked over, or damaged in some manner. People tend to move around frantically in disaster scenarios, and could easily run into it. That's not a big deal, but theft is another issue. Where I live, I wouldn't want to leave my gear unattended for too long.

Just some other aspect if human behavior to consider...

  • Don't worry, edits from new users get moderated anyway. As you realised, better to add a new answer yourself if you are making a new point. Welcome, and thanks for contributing. Jan 3, 2014 at 10:32

This has been a question for both artists and journalists for ages. On the one hand, it seems wrong to profit from the suffering of others. On the other hand, it is life and is worth memorializing respectfully. I think the key comes down not to what we capture, but how we use what we capture. Context matters.

If for example, you somehow caught the audio of a rape on tape, using it in a rap video about "banging hoes" would be ethically dubious at best. If you instead used it carefully in a documentary on the harm done and the social problems that lead to rape occurring, I don't think many people would have a problem with it.

As long as you are fulfilling your moral duty to try to provide aid if you safely can, I don't think that capturing an event and using it tactfully and respectfully is an ethical issue, it should just be approached with caution and careful consideration.

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