Friday, September 02, 2005

Ethical Issues Surrounding Disaster Photos

I find a lot of the photos coming out of the disaster area disturbing. Like the photo on today's front page of the New York Times, showing a body floating face down. Or this photo on the Los Angeles Times Web site, which makes's precaution with a certain photo (12 in this slide show) -- a photo that I've seen on other sites -- seem almost quaint.

Photos like this (under Day Four, Evacuation, photo 2), in which another photographer is visible, make me wonder if people from the media are helping individuals in addition to reporting.

Back to the photo on the New York Times' front page. It reminded me of photos the newspaper published of people falling from the top of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Or the picture of a dead Marine being dragged through the streets of Somalia. An ethics class that I took first semester took time to discuss the ethics of publishing provocative photos. Is it ethical if a person in distress or a corpse is identifiable in a photo? What if a person isn't identifiable? Should such a photo run on the front page or inside the paper?

I don't remember if the photos of people falling from the World Trade Center ran on the front page of the New York Times, but I'm a little shocked that they went with the photo that they did today. I know a lot of people have drowned in the flood, but I think this picture shouldn't have been featured so prominently in the paper because the corpse is so visible. (The Los Angeles Times published a photo on its Web site in which a floating corpse, which one might be able to identify because of the woman's clothing, is even more visible. I feel guilty for not being able to look away from the picture.)

I thought today's discussion of race and Hurricane Katrina on the Brian Lehrer Show was interesting. You can listen to a stream of it or download it. The segment is called "Like Being in Steerage in the Titanic?"

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Anonymous Vivian Darkbloom said...

People--especially Americans--need to see the truth. This is the very essense of journalism. Decorum and taste should not play into a discussion. A candy-coated vision of Katrina's aftermath isn't helping anyone--not the victims, not the general public. I don't believe the NYT should censor its images so that people can better enjoy their grande lattes with the morning paper. And if my corpse were floating in the streets of a storm-ravaged city or being dragged through a town in the middle of a war, I damn well hope there's some journalist there to take a picture of it and an editor with the courage to publish it.

The truth is that people DIED from this disaster. We need to see WHO died (poor, black, elderly, children...) and HOW they died. We need to see what conditions were wrought upon the city, and how the many levels of government are dealing with it. This is the only way we will ever make progress, make change. Why do the major networks not show us any images from Iraq? Why instead do we see an orgy of military equipment, the night-bombings on Baghdad that look uncannily like a fireworks show? It's pacifying, it's sugar-coated. If we could see the destruction (and I DO see it because I look for it in my media), but if the general public could SEE maimed children, the bodies of innocent civilians, the caskets of American soldiers coming home, would we not as a nation call for an end to this war? I believe, as journalist Amy Goodman has said, that Americans are a compassionate people. We need to see, to know whats REALLY going New Orleans, in Iraq, and so on. Images DO end wars, they DO help people. Think of Vietnam ... remember the Japanese girl running, her clothes melted off from napalm ... think of the photos you've seen from Bosnia ... from Ethiopia ... Gordon Parks' WPA images of poverty ... google the great James Nachtwey and see if his images don't totally blow your mind and change the way you think about the world. One shouldn't feel guilty for looking at these images, one should feel guilty for NOT looking at them. For being unable to see what we have done, what is possible, what is reality for our fellow citizens on this planet.

12:39 PM  
Blogger mlliu said...

Some good points. I guess I was approaching this from a more cynical standpoint, thinking that too many media outlets are only too happy to show graphic images because they know people will watch. For these media outlets, it's all about trying to be as titillating as possible, blood and guts, sex and violence in an effort to boost their ratings.

In the case of the photos coming out of New Orleans, I can see how, in revealing the messiness of the situation, the photos show how the government has failed to protect the people. I agree, too, that there aren't enough photos coming out of Iraq. It still angers me to think about the controversy surrounding those photos of caskets coming back from Iraq. I wouldn't consider those photos graphic at all and think it was pretty obvious in that case that some people wanted to suppress the truth about the war, mainly that people die as a result of it.

Still, I think there are some images that are better left unpublished or not published on the front page. Photos that aren't just "indecent" but offensive, like photos of a murder victim that don't serve to tell the audience anything beyond what an article says. I'll have to think of some other examples.

12:29 AM  

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