What's 'Too Graphic'? How To Photograph Disaster

NPR photographer David Gilkey and visual journalism and ethics expert Kenneth Irby discuss how to depict human suffering without sacrificing the dignity of disaster victims. Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander explains the decision to run a controversial image of an earthquake victim.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After an earthquake devastated Haiti last month, news organizations around the world grappled with whether or how to display graphic images of death and human suffering. There was a controversy here, about an AP photograph on the npr.org home page that showed a man walking between bodies that choked a courtyard outside the morgue in Port-au-Prince.

The Washington Post drew angry letters after it ran a front page article of a rescuer crawling past the body of a young girl crushed in the collapse of the school.

After natural disasters like the quake in Haiti, among human conflict like Iraq or Rwanda or even after a bloody car accident, editors struggle. Will this picture offend the dignity of victims? Will it offend viewers? If we don't show it, are we sanitizing an ugly reality that people need to see?

Where should the news media draw the line? Give us a call, 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman at the Washington Post, who's written about the newspaper's decision to run a graphic picture on the front page and about readers' responses. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Andy, nice to have you with us today.

Mr.�ANDREW ALEXANDER (Ombudsman, Washington Post): Thank you.

CONAN: And a lot of the complaints about that particular photo were about placement, on the front page.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: They were. And I think the objections basically were that people don't have a choice of whether they can filter that out. The newspaper arrives in their home. It's unlike a Web site, where you can put a warning before the photos, and so it was sort of there right in front of them. So I heard from quite a few readers that said, you know, that's a tough thing to view over my breakfast, and a few readers who had children said this was tough for them to shield their children from this image.

CONAN: And you talked to the editors about their decision to run that particular picture on the front page.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: I did, and your listeners should understand I'm not on the staff of the Post. I operate independent of the newsroom, although I'm there, and I listen to what readers have to say. And my conclusion in my column was that they had given it a good deal of thought.

There is always this difficult line between respecting the sensibilities of your readers, or in the case of radio or television, listeners, viewers, but also trying to capture the reality of something that was so large. The magnitude of this earthquake and the devastation was almost unspeakable.

CONAN: You also asked the question: Would this have been the same kind of picture had this earthquake happened in Sweden as opposed to Haiti?

Mr.�ALEXANDER: I did ask that question explicitly of the photo editors, and their answer was that they thought that it would be treated the same. I think scale is important, and I have to believe that probably in a situation like that, I think they would have treated it the same.

CONAN: Yet you also did some research.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: I did. I looked back at how the Post handled photographs from New Orleans or from...

CONAN: Katrina.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Katrina, from the tsunami in Indonesia and the area, and we did not show, or the Post did not show, to my knowledge, explicit images from Katrina. That may be because in this country and in many nations, authorities are very quick to cordon off areas, and it's more difficult to see things.

From the tsunami, they did, the Post did run some fairly explicit photos, not on the front page.

CONAN: And so, of course, we all remember the picture of Kent State.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Right.

CONAN: And that obviously an explicit photograph, and of course, you also mention in your piece the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a Viet Cong suspect being summarily executed on the streets of Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Right.

CONAN: Those kinds of images were run and changed people's minds.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: They did, and I think when you're evaluating these, you have to think a lot about the setting. I mean, those were individual acts, but they were also in an era when we were involved in an unpopular war, and I also think with both of them, they were iconic images that a picture editor, when they saw them, they knew this is significant.

CONAN: We're talking about where you draw the line with graphic images in, well, earthquakes and wars and massacres, 800-989-8255. The same principles apply, I guess, to car accidents, too. Email us, talk@npr.org. We have Michael(ph) on the line calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MICHAEL: Yes, I have just recently saw a Time magazine article on Haiti, and there was a photograph in there of a gentleman who was just shot while trying to loot a store. And it's a picture of him laid out in a very crumpled, I guess death pose with his eyes wide open and blood coming from his head, spilling on the sidewalk.

And I just didn't understand how a picture like that could have ended up, even in the few pictures that were in there, for the Time magazine article. I mean, we know there's looting taking place, and I think the death of a person is something that we see or we know of, but to see that graphic a picture, it just had me thinking that in my lifetime, when it comes to indigenous people of color, regardless of their, you know, their nationality or cultural backgrounds, you just see a lot more in the way of display of flesh as well as displays of just cruelty by nature or by the hands of other human beings.

You see a lot more of those types of photos. In fact, you see a shortage of photos when it comes to people who are not of color.

CONAN: Andy Alexander, do you think he's right?

Mr.�ALEXANDER: I don't know if he's right, but that is a question that a number of readers raised with me. And not being a person of color, it's difficult for me to assess that, but in the case of the Post, I would note that the picture editor is Jamaican, to whatever extent that matters, but I think it's a legitimate question to ask, and it's something that picture editors and newspapers, particularly magazine, need to keep in mind as they're selecting these photos.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much of the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us also in Studio 3A, we'll get a photographer's perspective. NPR staff photographer David Gilkey. He recently returned from Haiti and created an audio slideshow to NPR's photography blog reflecting that experience, and thanks very much for being on TALK OF THE NATION with us.

DAVID GILKEY: Thank you.

CONAN: We should note, on your audio slide show, there is a warning that there are some graphic images that might disturb some people.

GILKEY: Yeah, I think that's only fair. We were talking about the scale of this, and I think that's why you saw the pictures that you were seeing, especially the ones we talked about early. The most graphic scenes were outside the morgue, which was near the hospital in downtown.

I mean, you're talking about thousands of bodies, and somehow it might be a clich�, but that is something that really is a picture's worth 1,000 words. It just you had to show it. It was just on a scale that I'd never seen before, and I've traveled extensively in war zones and conflict areas and disaster zones, and I'd never seen anything like this.

CONAN: So that without those images, as disturbing as they were, we need to be disturbed, I think is what you're telling us.

GILKEY: I think we need to be disturbed, but I also think there's a way to do it that is possibly respectful to the scene that's in front of us. We're professional photographers. There's a way to do it. Having someone in the foreground, throwing the background out of focus, is a way to soften that up a bit. I mean, you still get it, but you don't have to be hit over the head with it.

CONAN: Some people have also raised the question of what do you do with beautiful pictures of horrors? Do you deliberately you're trying to make good pictures, right?

GILKEY: I mean, you're trying to make good pictures, but you're also trying to simplify things. One of the things, as a photographer, when you go into these situations, it seems like there's pictures everywhere. And there are. But it's also a matter of doing your job, decomplicating the scenes so that people get it quicker. I wouldn't call it shooting beautiful pictures, but I would call is simplifying things.

CONAN: I'm sure you've heard the phrase, disaster porn?

GILKEY: Yeah, I've heard that, yeah, of course. I'm not sure I like that phrase. You know, at the end of the day, if a few people think that you've simplified it to the point of beauty, then that might be the price that you pay, but if it gets a message across to more people that there's a huge, huge problem somewhere, then I think it's...

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Laurel(ph), Laurel with us from Grand Junction, Colorado.

LAUREL (Caller): Hi, I was calling to speak about a video I saw on cnn.com, where there was an interview going on, and in the background of the interview, a body was being extricated from some rubble. And as the interview was going on, the head fell off the body down the rubble.

CONAN: Oh my.

LAUREL: And the interviewer instructed the cameraman to pan away, and we don't want to show that, we don't want to show that. And CNN had it up on their Web site. And I personally feel that it is appropriate to show images like this, and as this being an online video, they could have had it on there with kind of a warning or something.

They didn't. They had it on there just as one of the videos in a stream of news videos.

CONAN: Was it repeated, as far as you know?

LAUREL: I looked at for several times over the course of several days, showing it to people because I was so stricken by the fact that it was just...

CONAN: Is that because you recoded it and showed it to people or being CNN showed it?

LAUREL: No, it was on their Web site.

CONAN: It was on their Web site, okay.

LAUREL: So I feel like it was very appropriate to have it available as a piece of media for people to consume. It would have been more appropriate to have a warning on it and maybe not even have made the cameraman pan away. This is an important thing in making it real for people - what's going on over there.

CONAN: And David Gilkey, that, making it real, that's your job. That's why you're there.

GILKEY: Well, it is. I can't speak to what clearly probably was an accident of having someone doing a stand-up and a body rolling out of the rubble, but it is. I mean - and it's our job to get that message back here. It's I don't like being there, but I also know that it's important.

CONAN: You can see David Gilkey's audio slideshow at npr.org. There is that warning. There's also a link at our Web site to some of the images that were published in the Washington Post that we're also talking about. Go to npr.org., click on TALK OF THE NATION. And stay with us. David Gilkey, by the way, thanks very much for being with us today.

GILKEY: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: David Gilkey is staff photographer for NPR News. And we're going to continue with Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman at the Washington Post; and also talk with Kenneth Irby, the visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media studies as we continue. Where do you draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

On the radio, we rely on sound and words to tell a story, a tone of voice, a certain background noise can put you in the middle of an event. The same can be said for images, and some of the photos coming out of Haiti in the last few weeks have been heartbreaking, in some cases quite graphic.

Newspapers hear complaints about front page images of death and suffering. Newsrooms around the country, including her at NPR, had conversations about how to cover a disaster of this magnitude in pictures.

Where should the news media draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guest is Andy Alexander, the Washington Post ombudsman. You can look at the work of NPR's photographers in Haiti and find a link to the Washington Post's images at npr.org. Again, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's bring another voice into the conversation. Kenneth Irby joins us. He's the former photo editor at Newsday. He now leads the Visual Journalism Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and serves as its director of diversity. He's with us from the Poynter Studio in St.�Petersburg in Florida. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr.�KENNETH IRBY (Director, Visual Journalism Group, Poynter Institute for Media Studies): How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: And Ken well, thanks. And can we tell the story of what's happening in Haiti without - hundreds of thousands killed and injured. Do you have to show bodies and blood?

Mr.�IRBY: I think absolutely. I think you have to show the true, authentic realities that are happening in Haiti and foreign lands when disaster and trauma presents itself.

We've known throughout history that we've told those stories through oral traditions, through writing and radio, but photographs have the power to impact people at a visceral level and change the hearts and minds of public opinion and national focus.

CONAN: And that is why there have been, at various times and various places, a lot of policies, not just in newspapers, but a lot of policies, for example the military, on what photographs can be shown and what can't.

Mr.�IRBY: Absolutely. There's an awful lot of censorship that happens both in terms of military and governmental activities in American in particular.

CONAN: Andy Alexander, we remember the controversy when the associated press ran a very distant photograph of a Marine killed in Afghanistan, and this after his family had been notified and all of that. Nevertheless, people were furious that this had been shown.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Right. You know, Kenny mentioned censorship by the government, but I think sometimes we have to be very aware that the be very careful that we are not censoring on our own. It's a very dicey area.

Many times, there have been controversies about even photographing even the services at Arlington National Cemetery for soldiers who have been killed, and the military in the past has tried to restrict some of that. But you know, my experience has been that very often, families want that photographed. And I think one of the interesting things out of the Haiti situation was - my colleague at the New York Times quoted someone on the Times in the photo area saying families wanted those images shown. They wanted the world to see what had happened to them. So it's not always clear cut in these situations.

CONAN: Kenny Irby, we talked earlier with Andy Alexander about his question, would their coverage have been the same if this had been in Sweden. What do you think?

Mr.�IRBY: I'd like to think so, that we've developed as a mature media in America, and now we have people of color and people who have diverse backgrounds who have an appreciation and can contribute to the conversation that takes place about these difficult decisions.

CONAN: Let's go to Ray(ph). Ray's calling us from St.�Louis.

RAY (Caller): Hello. I spent 16 days in Haiti back in 1989 doing some humanitarian work, and one of the things that concerns me with the images is, you know, there's a higher law of human dignity, and I'm glad to hear the discussion lean toward a family's desire. But you know, the tens to hundreds of thousands of bodies that have been seen in the photographs, I mean, did we take the time to find these family members, the surviving family members, and ask their permission: Can we please do this? Is this okay?

My concern is about the dignity of the body and of the family, and are we following a higher law, not necessarily an editorial law or a federal censorship? Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, Ray. Did you ask the Post editors about that, Andy Alexander?

Mr.�ALEXANDER: I didn't ask them explicitly, but I think there are several factors in play here. First of all, if you look at the Post photos, they certainly show images of death, but I don't think that those people would be identifiable unless you were right there and knew it.

Second, as a practical matter, you can't. This is human suffering, death, on such an incredible scale, and the urgency of the need for these images to get out is makes it impractical.

CONAN: But you also wrote about distance being a factor. Had this been a bloody car accident here on the beltway here in Washington, D.C., you might not have run the gory image, images that might deter somebody from driving drunk, on the basis that these are these people are local.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: That's correct. And I think most newspapers and most news organizations do follow that rule because in their circulation area or in their immediate viewership, people probably know the people who were in that crash, and...

Mr.�IRBY: That's the rule that smacks of hypocrisy for lots of readers and viewers and members of audiences, and I think one of the concerns is, and Neal's question earlier about proximity, that leads us, that lends us to being in a position where we are inconsistent in the kinds of decisions that we make when photographs happen closer to us, and we feel a guiding principle or moral guideline that says that we have to be more sensitive to life.

I think a life - a loss of life here versus in Katrina or in China or in Chechnya or in any of these foreign lands should be valued at the same, at that same high regard.

CONAN: Here's an email from Lynn(ph) in Bailey, South Carolina. The Haiti earthquake's aftermath has been very graphic. Unfortunately, many young children six to 12 years of age have been quite shaken. Several of my friends report their children or grandchildren have had nightmares, literally have been made ill. Remember, children have access to so much violent imagery. We need to be aware of who is watching what we do, watch and say.

Many children don't have the ability to place this tragedy in context. That was, I think, the explicit message in a lot of the complaints you had to the Washington Post.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: It was. I got quite a few of those, but you know, it's interesting. After my Sunday column appeared several Sundays ago, I got a bundle of emails from readers who said thank you for presenting these images. They were very difficult to digest, but we've used them as a teaching moment for our children, that at some point out children have to be exposed to that. I think...

Mr.�IRBY: That is - go ahead.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Well, I think one thing to keep in mind is that children today of all ages have access to this on the Internet instantly.

CONAN: Or on TV.

Mr.�IRBY: On TV.

Mr.�ALEXANDER: On TV, yes.

Mr.�IRBY: And video games. The video games that children, in large part, are engaged in are far more violent. I think the teaching point that Andy brings up, and I read several of those comments this weekend, as did Clark Hort(ph) get very similar positive responses after the fact, which leads me to two quick things I'd like to make sure we got in.

One is that it's not just the children that need to learn about the broader world, but it's the American citizens in general because a lot of the coverage has been quite provincial, parochial, privileged in terms of how we share the harsh realities around the world.

And the second point is that we have to look for broader context and disclosure about why we publish those photographs at the time of publication instead of doing the ombudsman's report after the fact.

Our studies at Poynter have shown that when, in the context of the coverage, there's some transparency, there's some sharing of the process that journalists go through to make these decisions, then audience contributors and consumers are far more accepting of the coverage.

CONAN: Andy?

Mr.�ALEXANDER: Well, I agree with that. That's a really good point, and the column I wrote for the Post about this generally agreed with the Post's decisions. But one of the things that I suggested they could have done is that they could have put a note someplace in the paper that said an editor's note that said, here's our reasoning behind running this.

And I don't know I'm a newspaper guy. I understand newspapers. I don't understand television as well, but I do know from my experience in this business for a long time that readers generally think we don't care about their feelings, and I think having a note that simply says here's our reasoning, we thought about your sensibilities, I think it goes a long way toward helping readers understand why we're doing it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller. This is Elizabeth(ph), Elizabeth calling us from Battle Creek in Michigan.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment that when I was a child, my parents did not shield me from the war in Lebanon, and I watched all of that coverage, and because of that, when I grew up, I met a woman through my business who, her family was in power during that time. And because I knew so much about Lebanon from the TV, we were able to form such a great connection, and I was very glad that I had had that knowledge as a child.

CONAN: Does your family have some connection with Lebanon in particular?

ELIZABETH: No, we do not. We just watched it on television in the evenings. I sat on my father's lap, and we watched the world news.

CONAN: Did he say anything to you about that?

ELIZABETH: We did talk about it a lot, you know, that that was not coming here and that I wasn't going to be murdered in my bed, you know, or anything like that, and my parents were very good about explaining things.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the phone call.

Mr.�IRBY: That's great. That's a great testament.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kathleen(ph), Kathleen with us from Festus in Missouri.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Kathleen. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

KATHLEEN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KATHLEEN: I just wanted to talk about a picture that I cannot get out of my head that I saw. I believe it was in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But it was of a small, little mound of body, and it looked as if - to me, it's definitely like they were toys in a toy box and just dumped in the toy box. And one in particular looks like a doll that had just been thrown in. And her head was down. You couldn't see the upper part of her body. But you could see the - her backside. And he was just being kind of sticking up in the air. She had these little lazy panties and a little short skirt. I think she might have been maybe a teenager.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHLEEN: And she had beautiful athletic-looking legs. And the sun was shining and shining on the - her skin. And she didn't look dead. She just looked like she had just been tossed in with the other toys. And of - that just absolutely rooted me, because, for one thing, it showed the capriciousness of nature...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHLEEN: ...and how there was just absolutely nothing you can do about it. And for another, I had thought, well, what if her parents are alive, and they see this picture, and they see that this is her daughter exposed to the world like this, and...

CONAN: Could they have recognized her from that picture?

KATHLEEN: I think maybe they could have. I can't say that for sure, you know?

CONAN: Sure.

KATHLEEN: But I think there was enough of a persona there that they could have. You know, perhaps, or sister or someone. And I just felt so bad for the family. You know, and I also thought if more people had gotten there to help, earlier, maybe they could have helped handle that situation a little better for people. (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Let me ask Kenny Irby to respond to this. When we consider this question - and thank you very much for that call, Kathleen. When we consider this question of the dignity of victims, especially people who are far away and different than you and me, when do we get it right? When do we get it wrong?

Mr. IRBY: I think the challenge is is that we'll never get it right or wrong. The truth lies somewhere in between, and that they're philosophic on the pinning in guidelines in news organizations. Most news organizations follow a traditional John Mills' utilitarianism guideline that the greater good for the greater number of viewers in understanding the significance of the tragedy or the trauma that's being documented. And sometimes, it's just sheer violence that - when we're talking about war.

I think the process that news organizations have to go through to make those decisions, as Andy alluded to, is that they're thinking about how do we navigate that fine line between maximizing truth telling and minimizing harm. I don't think any media organization, in particular, goes out and intends to hurt people. However, that said, the horror of some of these catastrophes as we're talking about Haiti, somebody is invariably going to be harmed.

CONAN: Kenneth Irby is the visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute for media studies. And also with us is Andrew Alexander, Washington Post ombudsman.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Stan(ph). Stan with us from Utica, New York.

STAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STAN: A point that I wanted to bring out was, going back to years before we considered censorship and sensitivities of people; the photographs, the newsreel footage that I saw as a kid growing up of the Holocaust when the camps were liberated and the Army came in and shot newsreel footage and still photographs of the piles of bodies stacked like cord wood in their striped uniforms, and the dazed people standing there - not quite dead, not quite alive, was most shocking to me.

And I think that these kind of images can be very constructive, because I think they shock the world into believing that the Holocaust took place. And I think that those images still stay with us today in the universal abhorrence of revenge like that. And I would pose to the panel, discussion of the benefits to be afforded in such imagery.

CONAN: And without - well, let me ask you, Kenny Irby, what do you think?

Mr. IRBY: I think, absolutely. We need to be able to understand and fully or -and more fully appreciate the magnitude of the events that happen around the world. And photography gives us that vicarious appreciation. And it is not the truth, it is not the reality, but it's the closest interpretation of that, that both in still photographs and in video, that we as citizens who can't be there, can appreciate because of the transporting quality of photography.

CONAN: Is there any difference - and let me bring Andy Alexander into this -between showing images of a manmade Holocaust, the Nazi death camps, and, well, something capricious, like nature, without getting into - we could construct our buildings better and that sort of thing. But nevertheless, is there a difference there?

Mr. ALEXANDER: A difference between?

CONAN: Between showing images of something manmade, we have to show this - so man does not do this again - and showing something that the nature did. It's going to happen whether we wanted to or not.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah. That's a difficult question because in most earthquakes, it is a natural disaster that the consequences are failings of man and a lot of the construction and all that. But...

CONAN: And certainly, as we saw in New Orleans, too. Yes.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I think, just a digress for a second, I was sort of interested in this point as juxtaposed against the previous caller who said she can't get an image out of her mind. That's often a very good thing. And those images of the Holocaust, all of those my age who remember seeing those for the first time, I still can't get them out of my mind. And I think sometimes when you view these images from Haiti, it's not a bad thing that you dwell on them and to think about the consequences or think about how we could prevent them in the future.

The wonderful thing about photography is that it is so evocative in a way that words can't be. And I think it's when we give thought to how we use it, it can be very, very powerful in a positive way.

Mr. IRBY: It's absolutely correct. I mean, it's generational. I think back to the images out of the Deep South of Selma with the water cannons and dogs

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IRBY: unleashed on people. Again, these are further examples and manifestations of the power of photography, to be able to move the hearts and minds of humans.

CONAN: Ken.

Mr. IRBY: to action. And that's where the

CONAN: Ken Irby, I'm afraid I have to cut you off because we're running out of time. Ken Irby, thanks very much for your time. Also, our thanks to Andy Alexander of The Washington Post, their ombudsman.

When we come back, new research on binge drinking and the teenage brain. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: