A healthy discussion is brewing over publishing certain photographs and videos, especially those of a graphic nature. The National Press Photographers Association has been running weekly articles debating this topic. Editors and publishers anguish over whether to run graphic images. They also reap the rewards, awards, and suffer the public’s outrage.
The photographs of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Steven’s half naked and bloody body made international front-page headlines. The New York Post’s full front-page photograph of the man who was pushed off a subway platform trying to save himself as a train bore down on him stirred angry controversy.
Graphic photographs published by the Mexican press and other foreign outlets of decapitated bodies and people hung from bridges or light poles generate healthy debate in American newsrooms. Then there is the daily blood and gore coming out of Middle East.
A “kid” named Tony Berardi took one of the most famous graphic photographs. He shot the scene of the Saint Valentine’s massacre in all its bloody gore. The scene was shot from above, as Berardi jumped on the hood of a truck to take the photographs. The gritty black and white photographs brought a death scene to life. It is a good bet those photographs would not be published today.
News editors fret over photographs and video. They must make decisions whether to run them or bury them in the archives. Taste, so-called ethics, relevance, company policy, context, and other factors come into play. The most important decision-making factor in the modern media world is speed. We live in a 24/7-minute-by-minute warp speed environment. What if someone else shot the same photograph and runs it? Worse, what if the “suits” ask why the competition got it and you didn’t?
In this mach speed hyper competitive environment no news entity wants to get scooped. Then there is the old adage, still practiced, “If it bleeds it leads”. Editors must make their decisions in a heartbeat. This leads to problems, debates, discussions, public outrage, and quisling public relations people drafting pathetic tearful mea culpas for cowardly news executives.
Unfortunately if a picture creates controversy or negative publicity, the photographer is blamed along with the editor and publication. The most recent case was photograph the New York Post ran on a subway murder. The photographer was blamed for taking a picture instead of helping the victim, even though he was too far away to render aid. Of course the people who were close to the victim watching or taking pictures with their cell phones were spared any outrage. They were innocent bystanders.
With this in mind I posed a question to some photographers personally and on Facebook. Is there any picture you would not take? I made it clear I was not asking about publishing the photographs or even submitting them for publication. All I asked was if they had limits to what they would shoot.
As for myself, I am a shooter. At news events or even on the street I will shoot anything and everything. Since I used to photograph crime scenes and witnessed a fair share of autopsies as a police officer, blood and gore does not bother me.
I submit the images to whoever hired me for the day or put them out to other entities to see if they want them. If I do not grab an image someone else will. It is hard to explain why the competition got an image and you didn’t, especially if the image went viral.
I leave it whoever hired me or bought the images to make publishing decisions. Would I sell rejected graphic photographs to an interested outlet for publication? You betcha. When working or even coming across a newsworthy event, I shoot for publication not gratification. I am a firm believer in the power of imagery. A good photograph can tell a powerful story. A good story with a powerful image can do more. It can move people.
Tony Berardi’s photo of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre showed Chicago the vicious evil of organized crime. People saw real victims of the mob in all their bloody gore. It created outrage. Not at Berardi or his newspaper but towards the Chicago Mob and Al Capone.
Other photographers had varied opinions on this topic. Many said they would not shoot a photograph that would cause harm to innocent people. Others claim they would not shoot anything they felt would not get published. Some raised the recent Newtown shooting incident and firmly stated they would not shoot pictures of dead children if the opportunity arose. Others emailed me with various diatribes on ethics, as if they actually existed in the real world of newsgathering.
A curious aspect was the exceptions to their limits. “I would not photograph dead women and children. But, if it was a war zone…” Or “I would not shoot innocent victims or cause harm to innocent people unless there was a compelling story…” I guess there are exceptions to every rule or so-called ethical considerations.
Personally, I am a strong advocate for graphic photography, sometimes even in the extreme. It has power to move people and create change. During the 1980s-90s Mafia wars in Sicily there were extremely graphic photos and video taken, published, and produced. You saw the dead, mutilated bodies, body parts, and rivers of blood being washed from the streets. People saw these images and reacted. Enough was enough. They protested in the streets and got action. The government finally clamped down and the Sicilian Mafia, though not destroyed, went underground.
In Mexico people are starting to demand change too. All because they see with their own eyes in the daily news the evil of criminal cartels. In the Middle East graphic imagery shows the horror of murderous terrorists, religious fanatics, and tyrannical despots.
A good photograph accompanied by a well-written story has real power. Sometimes the photograph alone with a simple caption can be more powerful than any thousand-word article or screaming editorial. The sheer raw power of a single image can say it all.
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