A View from the Hill: Photojournalism, ethics, and documenting tragedy

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In a column I wrote here in November 2020, I spoke of the need for a photograph that would shock the world into taking the coronavirus seriously, give us “a hard, sudden smack in the face.” A disruptor photo.

Later, I thought I had found it in a widely circulated image shot by National Geographic photojournalist Joshua Irwandi in an Indonesian hospital. It showed the corpse of a COVID-19 victim, wrapped in clear plastic on a bed. The body’s features are indistinguishable. Its very anonymity is its power – this could be anyone.

Andrew MarstersFred Ritchie, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography, told Nat Geo that the image struck him as  “of someone being thrown out, discarded.”  

“Here we have a mummified person,” Ritchie said. “It makes you look at it, feel terror.”

Terror, as in Uvalde, Texas. Unspeakable terror. Unphotographable terror?

There have been calls since the massacre for just such a photo, a graphic image of what happens when a child is shot with an AR-15. Something to take us beyond the chaos of the moment – SWAT teams, running children, grieving families – to witness the raw ghastly carnage. Even some victims’ families support the idea.

Perhaps that photo would be the slap in the face that would make heads turn, and force us to take action.

Writing in The New York Times, Kara Swisher recounted a discussion she had heard among journalists recently.

“Specifically, was it time to make it a regular practice to publish the grisly photos that show the true impact of gun violence?” Swisher wrote. “In the case of the murder of 19 children and their teachers, is it appropriate to show what someone killed by an AR-15 looks like?”

Does the potential good that would come from publication of such a photo outweigh the harm that it would do to grieving families, to the community?

You may be surprised that there is nothing in the law to stop a news organization from publishing such a photo.

Nothing and everything: outrage, condemnation, lost business, recrimination, guilt, civil lawsuits.

After Irwandi’s image was published, the blowback was so strong that he had to “lay low” after details of his private life were published. His ethics were questioned.

When journalists can’t turn to a law that forbids them to do something, they must make that decision on their own, and ethics must be at the heart of that decision.

I recall many, many years ago a seminar I attended led by the late New England newspaper journalist Jon Kellogg, who served for a time as managing editor for reporters at the Portland Press Herald. 

Kellogg had based his seminars on similar sessions led by Fred Friendly, a journalism professor at Columbia University and former president of CBS News. Friendly’s sessions were called Socratic Seminars, and they forced participants to weigh a host of factors, including ethics, before arriving at a consensus on highly complex, divisive issues.

“Our job is not to make up anyone’s mind,” Friendly wrote, “but to open minds – to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking.”

I don’t remember the topic of Kellogg’s session, but he was good at it, and I recall being fascinated as he adeptly worked the room, challenging participants, and tossing in unanticipated circumstances that would abruptly alter the direction of the discussion. There were plenty of U-turns, hard stops, and near misses before the road finally began to straighten out.

Ethics became central to my decision-making as the editor of a Maine newspaper and later in my teaching of editing courses at the University of New Hampshire.

At that time – and still today – news decision-makers hid behind a policy: We do not publish pictures of dead bodies.

Never?

What if, Kellogg might have posited, the family begged you to do so? What then? And what if that family owned the business that was your biggest advertiser? How does that alter your decision-making? What if the family lived next door?

One case I used in my teaching was a photo published in The Oregonian years ago of a dead 12-year-old in a partially unzipped body bag beside a lake, his upper body and face revealed, his friend bending over him, despondent. They had been swimming at a public park; the dead boy had drowned.

Would my students publish it? At first blush, they were horrified. “That’s illegal … isn’t it?” “Invasion of privacy.” “Cruel.” They never would have published it.

But after a while, as I threw out what-ifs, the thinking softened, then changed. I wasn’t coaching them toward a particular decision. I was just urging them to “think harder” as new data was collected.

Eventually, most of them decided they would publish, that any harm was outweighed by the likelihood that a community aware of a danger – slapped in the face by its horror – could act to prevent a repeat.

Which is what we are trying to do now.

John Temple was editor of the Rocky Mountain News at the time of the Columbine massacre. The News published a photo of a slain student sprawled on a sidewalk, a can of Coke spilling onto the concrete as students nearby hid behind a car. It is gut-wrenching. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

Writing in The Atlantic recently, Temple expressed no regrets, although he wondered if it would even be possible to get a photo of a child ripped apart by an AR-15.

“Maybe one day some editors will have a picture of a dead child even more powerful than the one we published that will finally make a difference,” he wrote.

Maybe. But how, when, and where will it be used? That will require some very hard thinking.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.