Looking Death in the Face

Moseley, Greenwood Cemetery, 1998, by Titus Brooks Heagins, Digital photograph, Anacostia Community

At one point, early in CNN’s round-the-clock television coverage of Haiti after the earthquake struck, a distraught and grieving man asked Anderson Cooper if his camera man could photograph the face of his wife, whose dead body lay on the street, covered with a thin sheet. The man bent down, slowly and gently lifted up the corner of the shroud, and once his wife’s face was revealed and recorded, he lowered the cloth. It was a simple, stunning, and sad piece of footage to see, and soon it took its place in a loop of on-air images meant to communicate the horror of an event to people out of harm’s way and watching from afar.

In the past, while depictions of death have routinely been pumped up and exploited as the dramatic fodder and visual pay-off in TV dramas and movies, when it has been represented in news media, it tends to be done with what some might say was “taste” and others would call censorship. Mid-twentieth-century tabloids, for example, routinely plastered sensationalize and lurid photos of murdered mobsters on their covers, but you seldom saw the faces of the dead. Until recently, there’s been even more of an unspoken law when it comes to depicting the deaths of “innocents”—victims of kidnappings, shoot-outs and tragedies, police officers, or soldiers caught in the line of fire. News editors and the photo editors who work decide to shield the public from what news photographers and photojournalist repeated see and sometimes record, if only for themselves. While it’s expected that bad news can be doled out in some detail, photographic images get toned down because their precise meaning and emotional impact are harder to control.

The circulation of vivid color images by photographers like Larry Burroughs and real-time video of conflict changed the content and nature of media coverage during the Vietnam War, but even at the start of the 21st century, the media remained less than forthcoming when it came to reported what truly awful events looked like. The day after 9/11, a friend of mine from New York who working in London, called me in New York to find out if I was seeing the same photographs in American newspapers that he was seeing in British ones—startling images of jumpers at the World Trade Center. We weren’t, and after his call, I questioned a colleague, a high-placed photo editor in New York, about whether news images were being censored. She said no, but having heard explicit and harrowing first-person accounts of what had been seen and experienced, the pictures I was seeing didn’t match up. They ones that got published seemed to be aestheticized, to strain toward abstract symbolism rather than inventorying or documenting near-inconceivable facts.

But based on images coming out of Haiti this month, that self-imposed restraint seems to be lessening. “Images coming out of Haiti,” Phillip Kennicott wrote a piece in the Washington Post on January 15th, “are more graphic than those from recent natural disasters, and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at question is why?” He then explores a list of possible and sometimes provocative explanations, ranging from class issues to the spread of digital images made by citizen journalists.

Another strong article, by Clark Hoyt for the New York Times, reports on Times photo editors’ thoughts about what images get published and readers’ strong reactions to the ones that do. The fact that our need to both be in and to see images continues to change, is reflected in a quote from a Times photographer, Damon Winter, who had never previously covered a natural disaster: “So many people beg me to come to their home and photograph the bodies of their children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers . . . that I have to apologize and say that I cannot, that I have photographed so many bodies already, and I think it breaks their hearts because they so desperately want people to know what has happened to them.”

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