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Journalism, Observations

Should we see dead people?

image not shownThe image of the body of a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach was widely credited for the change of heart which briefly swept even Australia into a more compassionate response to the wave of refugees fleeing the horror of the Middle East. But should it have been shown at all? 

The power of the news photograph brings difficult judgments for all of us, even more so in the digital age when pictures which may have once never made it past a Picture Editor’s desk are streamed seemingly endlessly into our feeds and timelines.

The image of Aylan Kurdi’s body was compared by many commentators to Nick Ut’s Vietnam picture ‘Napalm Girl’ which generated similar controversy when it was published and was credited with a similar change of heart in the community.

I grew up with Napalm Girl, the execution of a Viet Cong operative by the Saigon police chief  and countless other violent and disturbing images of the Vietnam war.

They were the first things I saw just about every Sunday throughout my childhood, on the long wall of the lift lobby at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong where many of the photographers who took those pictures gathered.

I knew the pictures. I didn’t know there was any controversy about what they showed until I started work on a newspaper and became involved in the daily discussion about whether a picture would offend the sensibilities of readers or the dignity of the dead.

While court reporting is governed by a myriad of rules and restrictions, the coverage of death is determined by morals and ethics, with a strong influence of commercial consideration on the side. A gruesome picture can lose readers as easily as win them and an Editor prepared to break convention needs to be able to argue a compelling public interest.

The case for publishing was powerfully expressed by the Editor of Bild Julian Reichelt, who took the extraordinary step of running no pictures at all in the edition of 9 September 2015. He said the decision was a bow to the power of the visual and called photographs “the screams of the world.” He wrote:

“Time and again, indeed currently we are hearing demands not to show images at all. We are asked to pixel them since human suffering is documented in too drastic a manner and people’s dignity is taken away.

“This argument ignores the most important part. It is not the photo depicting the undignified situation. It is the war! The ignorance of politics, our cowardice to step in. The photo documents the world and this world is not hidden behind pixels! We have no right to take the easy route, to look away when injustice happens. We must force ourselves to look. The pain we feel when viewing the pictures is nothing compared to the pain of the depicted. We have no right to say: I choose to look away because my pain is the same as theirs. It is not!”

The argument against publishing the picture was also made. Here in Australia, News Corp’s  David Penberthy praised the decision by some newspapers either to pixellate the three-year-old’s body, or not run the picture at all:

“It is such a confronting image and with newspapers left lying around in people’s homes, and being sold in their thousands to schools each day for classwork, the idea of one of my kids (or anyone else’s) being presented with such a picture is less than ideal. It should be a parent’s decision as to whether they child can see such a photo, not a newspaper editor’s.”

But we are all publishers now, with the power in our pinkies to share instantly and equally the gruesome and the banal with no responsibility beyond our own momentary feeling of outrage or mirth. I put them together because that’s how they can appear in a timeline – a dead baby nestled between a cute cat and a Tony Abbott meme.

It’s been a distressing week for everyone – on every side of the debate – but there’s no doubt that, not for the first time, a disturbing image of death has had the power to change people’s hearts.

In the introduction to his book Pictures on a Page former Times Editor Harold Evans observed: “It is more than a coincidence that the Vietnam war was at once the most unpopular in American history and the most photographed.”

It’s more than a coincidence too that in more recent times cameras are kept well away from our concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru.

The argument about whether confronting images should be shown will go on as long as confronting things continue to happen in the world. There can be no definitive answer but it’s a very good argument to have and one which each of us has a responsibility to consider.

My own view falls somewhere between Reichelt and Penberthy. Yes, of course it was right to publish the picture and yet I personally didn’t share it more than once because I felt the image was already ubiquitous.

It’s a shame that it takes an image of a dead toddler on a beach to finally galvanise public opinion in a compassionate direction. And it’s a shame that the family of Aylan Kurdi must surrender their memory of an ordinary little boy to the image of his final moment on a strange shore.

But that’s the power of a picture. And that’s why there’s a moral and ethical convention to not show the dead unless there is a compelling public interest. At least think about it before you publish.

Further reading:

The following list includes discussions on the ethics of publishing the image of Aylan Kurdi and in some cases will include the picture. But the first link is to a Calvin and Hobbes inspired cartoon by Chris Downes for the Hobart Mercury which imagined the little boy on a gentler shore with a lovely companion and a timely message:

Cecil and Aylan – Christopher Downes

The girl in the picture: Kim Phuc’s journey from war to forgiveness – Paula Newton and Thom Patterson, CNN

No photos in Bild today after Syrian toddler picture – Sydney Smith, iMediaEthics

On Aylan and the ethics of circulating images of the unconsenting dead – Tara Moss

What the image of Aylan Kurdi says about the power of photography – Olivier Laurent, Time

Documenting tragedy: The ethics of photojournalism – Talk of the Nation, NPR

© Sally Baxter 2015

This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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