Monday, January 10, 2005

The story in pictures

"Into a million homes came a grieving mother crouched beside the lifeless bodies of tiny children, and perhaps more horrifying, three pairs of feet extending from beneath a white sheet in an upper corner, suggesting the presence beyond the frame of row upon awful row of the tsunami's pitiless toll."

source: New York Times

It's a question pictorial editors everywhere have been grappling with since the news broke. What are the boundaries of acceptable taste? The Times' Public editor, Daniel Okrent, says:

"Mix a subjective process with something as idiosyncratic as taste and you're left with a volatile compound. Add human tragedy and it becomes emotionally explosive. The day The Times ran the picture of the dead children, many other papers led with a photograph of a grief-racked man clutching the hand of his dead son. It, too, was a powerful picture, and it's easy to see why so many used it. But it was - this is difficult to say - a portrait of generic tragedy. The devastated man could have been in the deserts of Darfur, or in a house in Mosul, or on a sidewalk in Peoria; he could have been photographed 10 years ago, or 10 years from now. His pain was universal.

But the picture on the front page of The Times could only have been photographed now, and only on the devastated shores of the Indian Ocean."

It's an important issue, and certainly breathes life into the paper's otherwise earnest debates with readers about political bias and newsworthiness.

ABC's Radio National covered the issue this morning. Unfortunately, there's no transcript yet but I'll add it as soon as it becomes available.

There was a lot of this sort of discussion during the Iraq War. When are confrontingly graphic images appropriate and when are they not? It's not simply a matter of access. One of the arguments about war versus natural disasters is that war coverage is restricted by military authorities. This is true, but there are still many horrible pictures from war zones that are not run in the daily paper because they don't add anything to the story.

That said, we did run a picture of the dead Hussein brothers on in July 2003 and copped some flack from readers. It was a very different situation, of course.

There was also a lot of discussion about the use of images from 911. The Australian Financial Review used a picture of a man falling from one of the towers on their front page a day or two after the attacks. Their justification was that it showed the human side of the horror in a way that longshots of the burning buildings did not.

Pictures are uniquely powerfully and confronting. One of the effects of the desperate images of victims from the tsunami is to help convey the full impact of the disaster to people in far away countries who might otherwise shrug and carry on as if nothing had happened.

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