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august 2014

Are there pictures that we shouldn't see?


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: The Falling Man; copyright 2001 Richard Drew (Associated Press)

After flight MH 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine, Magnum-Photographer Jérôme Sessini took pictures that some commentators felt shouldn't be shown because they would hurt the dignity of the deceased and their family members. It was also argued that pictures that are published should take into account the feelings of the readers and viewers respectively.

I do not name the sources of these comments because they are in no way original, they can be heard again and again, and I feel that the question whether we shouldn't be shown certain photographs needs to be addressed in principal.

It is argued that to show images of victims of war (or of accidents) are an affront to the dignity of the deceased and can add to the immediate grief of families. I must admit that I do not really understand what dignity in the context of war means. Soldiers are trained to kill. Killing and dignity, in my view, do not exactly go hand in hand. So how come then that killing in the context of war is accepted but what results from this killing should not be shown?

  Such pictures do nothing but shock, it is said, they do not contribute to a better understanding of what has happened. I disagree for we cannot really know what terrible pictures do to us. Sure, they very likely will shock and disturb us — and they should — but there is no basis for arguing that such pictures do not have the potential to educate and even change us.
Next Photographs set free emotions and these often cannot be controlled. Which is precisely the reason why we get to see so few pictures of certain wars. On 27 July 2008, The New York Times had this to say about the censorship of photographs of dead American soldiers in Iraq: "... after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers."
  Despite the abundance of photographs surrounding us, there are still far too many we do not get to see. 9/11 was probably the most photographed event of our time. But what about photos of jumpers, why didn't we get to see these? Joe Scurto, for instance, saw "at least a hundred people jumping. The were coming down like rain." Well, there is one that has come to be known as The Falling Man, taken by veteran Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; "the most famous picture nobody's ever seen," as Drew says.
Next There's another war photo (of an incinerated Iraqi soldier in his truck) not many people have seen because most media refused to publish it. Kenneth Jarecke, the photographer, had assumed the media would be only too happy to challenge the popular narrative of a clean, uncomplicated war. Unsurprisingly, he was wrong. As the old Romans phrased it, "mundus vult decipi," the world wants to be deceived.
  Moreover: "Nowadays ... news organizations tend to play it safe, having been subsumed by media conglomerates that give less credence to exposing harsh realities than to turning a profit, entertaining mass audiences, and satisfying skittish advertisers," as David Friend, in his impressive Watching the World Change. The Stories Behind The Images of 9/11, explains.
Next PS: Spare me the dignity-talk. I have enough experience and judgement to decide for myself what pictures deserve my attention.
  • DeGhett, Torie Rose (2012), "The War Photo No One Would Publish." In: The Atlantic, August 2012.
  • Friend, David (2009), Watching the World Change. The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11. New York: Picador, 2009.
  2014 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes