Why I’m okay with photos of the dead.


After the Battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War, by Mathew Brady. (Via.)

Joerg Colberg at Conscientious has a highly thought-provoking essay on his blog about the decision, by the New York Times, to reproduce a picture of the U.S. ambassador to Libya shortly after the embassy was attacked by Islamist militants. In the picture, Ambassador Christopher Stevens appears battered, bruised and glassy-eyed. He was one of four fatalities. The U.S. State Department asked that the picture be removed, but the paper declined, citing the picture’s “newsworthy” qualities.

In his essay, Colberg questions the premise that this is a newsworthy shot:

…there it is not a simple and obvious step to demand that we need to see the corpses of people blown up by our drones or, in this current case, the body of the dead or dying ambassador to Libya. In much the same way, if there is shootout in Manhattan then we also do not need to see the dead bodies of the various victims (as happened just a little while ago). Being told what happened is enough – seeing the bodies does not add even the tiniest amount of extra insight.

He adds:

I think a pretty simply rule would be to say that anyone who does not exist as a mental image in the larger public’s mind should be granted the dignity (yes, dignity) not to have her or his dead body shown in a news context (Not to mention what the relatives have to go through). There is no newsworthiness to showing such a photograph, as the case of Mr Stevens makes very clear.

Che Guevara, after being killed in Bolivia in 1967, in an image by Freddy Alberto

Initially, I was inclined to agree with Colberg, but after giving this some thought, I have to respectfully disagree. One, I think the photo of Stevens is brutally powerful, and it brings home the violence in the way that more abstract images (a man holding a weapon; charred architectural remains) do not. In addition, I don’t know that the purpose of a picture is always to add “insight.” Sometimes it’s simply to illustrate what happened — in this case, a brutal attack. Secondly, I disagree that showing some people’s deaths is somehow acceptable while others are off limits. (As in: Che Guevara, okay; unknown American soldiers and military contractors, not so much.)

I’m writing this in South America, where the news is regularly filled with images of death — high profile and otherwise. (Latin American media outlets are far less skittish about showing bodies than their North American counterparts.) In these parts, death is very much a part of life — whether it’s a common murder or a report of a mass grave left behind by some brutal regime or cartel. And I think that’s the way it should be. Hollywood films gleefully celebrate slow-mo death and dismemberment, but real-deal death is something we North Americans have a hard time dealing with as a culture. We put it off. We avoid mentioning it in the presence of children. In the media, not only do we resist images of bodies (especially American or white ones), in some cases, we even resist images of caskets.

The exhumation of journalists' bodies in Peru, as published in Diario Oficial El Peruano in 1983.

And while I’m not for turning the evening news into a daily snuff film or recommend that death be sensationalized, I do think we could stand a greater dose of reality — whether it’s facing the human cost of our foreign policy or the fatal results of a senseless attack. People die. Sometimes in tragic, pointless ways, their dignity consumed by an ill conceived war or an IED or somebody who is simply, inexplicably deranged. I’m not sure what we gain by keeping these deaths obscured from view. If anything, it can leave us with the unreal sense that life is somehow free of fatal consequence.

The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history, with some historians putting the death toll at roughly three quarters of a million soldiers (greater than the population of metropolitan Fort Worth). Countless history books, essays and other documentaries have been produced on the subject. But how many words would it take to convey the horror of the Mathew Brady image above? In the foreground, the body of an anonymous soldier lies in the battlefield at Gettysburg. He is stiff and bloated, his face deformed into something resembling a garish Halloween mask.

By today’s standard, we would not see such an image in a daily paper or on the news, so as to protect the man’s dignity and that of his family. And while I understand that urge, I also think it’s important for us to see how he died, to see the price he paid on the battlefield, to see the ramifications of the decisions we make, political and otherwise. Even under the best of circumstances, death is hardly dignified — a thing of rotten smells, untoward leaks and hollow breathing. We may not always like what we see. But I think the dead suffer a far greater indignity when we choose to look away.

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Related: a fascinating interview on Slate about death and the media.

8 comments

  1. Doug C.

    I’m 100% in agreement with you.
    This “respect for the dead” has an unfortunate side effect. It aligns with a financial and social stratification in our society in which the wealthiest sons and daughters will never see military service unless by choice, and most won’t choose it.

    It provides a polite distance by which to view events for something that should never have that distance.How many would be agitating for an attack on Iran if they had already lost children in our previous wars or even if the war was front and center, visible the way the Vietnam war was?

    This was a strategic policy implemented by the Bush administration who would not allow the coffins of returning soldiers to be photographed to obscure the real cost of the war and who was actually fighting, and dying.

  2. Todd Florio

    Incidentally, that death toll estimate of the Civil War is also greater than the current population of Washington D.C. (617,996 in 2011 per Wikipedia).

    I grappled with whether or not to link to the NYT image of the man killed at the ESB recently from a work social media account. Ultimately I did not because a co-worker I asked was highly offended and I demurred.

    I tend to agree with you though. Facing the horror of violent senseless death might help us move more expeditiously towards peace.

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