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november 2006

"Take pictures, show the world that our children are dying!"


by Hans Durrer
Next "— Tell the world, the man had said in broken English as he pushed me through the door. — Take pictures, show the world that our children are dying!
  I take out my camera and look questioningly at the three women. They nod.
  The women lay a transparent plastic sheet around Fatima, they wrap her in white cloth. It is rolled around her several times before being knotted at both ends. They cut holes for her eyes and mouth.
  On the floor there is a coffin; her mother Hasina is already lying in it. One of the woman recounts what happened. — They were on the way to the market and happened to be where the missile hit. Hasina had eleven children; she leaves ten behind.
  Fatima is lowered into the coffin beside her mother. Washed clean — on her way to Paradise. Outside the cubicle two of her brothers cry."

  The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, from whose book A Hundred and One Days. A Baghdad Journal (London: Virago, 2004) this quote stems, offered Fatima's picture to Aftenposten and to The New York Review of Books. Both declined to print it. "A dead child's face is too strong an image for the international press," she comments.
Next We all know that, apart from military and government censors, editors and photo-editors decide what we are getting to see, and what not. It is rare that photos which they deem too upsetting (severed limbs, for example) make it into mass media publications. But when they do one often wonders why, apart from the photographers who shot them, only editors and photo-editors should be entitled to see such images. Surely not because of ethical concerns for, in times when there seems to exist no other value indicator than profit, ethics in journalism translates into a very simple question: is there a real danger that we will be sued (and that we will probably loose a lot of money) when we print these pictures?
  Left: Lt. James J. Cathey was killed in action in Iraq on August 21, 2005. Todd Heisler made this photo of his casket arriving at Denver International Airport. The prizewinning photo series can also be seen at the travelling World Press Photo exhibition 2006. Copyright © 2005 Rocky Mountain News

Most of us haven't seen pictures from the Gulf-War, and most of us haven't seen photos of dead bodies after the attacks on the Twin-Towers in New York City. In the case of the victims of New York City, the argument usually was that it would have been "bad taste" to show such images; one however hasn't heard this argument in the case of the Gulf-War, neither has one heard it when the PRopaganda-specialists of George Bush Jr decided that photos of caskets bringing home dead servicemen and — women should not be allowed to be shown in public. It is good to know that not all photographers and news organisations accept such censorship, and it is good to know that Todd Heisler of the "Rocky Mountain News" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2006 for photos that showed what, according to the guidelines of the present American Administration, we should not have seen.

Next From time to time we get to see pictures that — had it been up to the censors (military, government or mass media; they however do not always work hand in hand) — we shouldn't have seen. The Abu Ghraib-photos, for instance, or, more recently, the ones showing German soldiers with an unearthed skull in Afghanistan. So, everything is fine then, for isn't this proof that censorship doesn't really work, that "the truth" always comes out?
  Well, what pictures show is one thing, what they do not show quite another. Which is why we need to see as many uncensored photos as possible and, when looking at them, we need not to forget to ask: what happened off-camera? And: what happened when the camera was not there? For when we so reflect, we make photos do what they are capable of doing: to tell us more than the famous thousand words.
  2006 © Hans Durrer / 2006 © Soundscapes