Editor's Pick

Photographing Tragedy: The Line Between Art And Reality?

Here's an interesting point of discussion. Until this past Sunday, NPR had two staff photographers in Haiti, filing photo coverage on a daily basis. One of our readers, Gilles Champagne, wrote in with this question about a gallery of photographs by NPR's David Gilkey:

Today's images featured on the blog leave me feeling conflicted — especially with their use of dusty conditions. I know this isn't an original thought, but at what point does an editor consider the quality of the composition, lighting and depth of field over the content of the image? Some of these images start to move toward an art side it would seem. I'm conflicted because I "enjoyed" some of the shots simply from "nice shot" point-of-view... but then wondered — should I have felt that from images of a tragedy of this scale.
Haitians continue to sort through rubble after the earthquake.

Haitians walk the streets and sort through rubble in the commercial district of downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 22, 2010. (David Gilkey/NPR) hide caption

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I passed this question up the ranks to senior supervising producer Keith Jenkins. Keith's whole life has been about photography. He was a staff photographer for The Boston Globe and photo editor at The Washington Post (and The Washington Post Magazine and washingtonpost.com) before coming to NPR's multimedia department. Here are his thoughts on the issue:

Gilles: You raise an interesting point — one that has probably surfaced every time photographers find themselves taking pictures in situations like the one in Haiti. Does the visual skill and artistry of a photographer, and by extension, their photographs, suddenly stop when they are working in places of human tragedy?
I would say no. What makes a good photographer is similar to what makes a good artist. The ability to find some level of "art" in the photographs being produced in places like Haiti should not be a surprise. What often happens, however, is that we, as the audience and as the editors, sometimes wince at showing images other than those that hit you over the head with the tragic nature of the situation.
But I argue that it is often those "other" pictures — the artfully taken photographs — that help humanize these events. They allow us to imagine ourselves in these settings, which can, on the one hand, maintain a level of beauty, but on the other, show some of the most horrific human suffering we know. It is perhaps, in this visual contrast, that we are better able to understand these events on an emotional level and make sense of them.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line between art and news? Does there have to be a distinction? Isn't art, fundamentally, a tool to stir the soul? Can news photographs be both factual and beautiful — even if tragic? Leave your comments — and check back for a debriefing with our photographers upon their return.

Related: Hear Keith Jenkins on Tell Me More. Disaster Photography: When Does It Cross The Line?

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