By Barbie Zelizer
A New York Post photographer snaps a picture of a man as he is pushed to his death in front of a New York City subway. An anonymous blogger photographs a dying American ambassador as he is carried to hospital after an attack in Libya. Multiple images following a shooting at the Empire State Building show its victims across both social media and news outlets. A little over three months, three events, three pictures, three circles of outrage.
The most recent event involved a freelancer working for the New York Post who captured an image of a frantic Queens native as he tried futilely to escape an approaching train. Depicting the man clinging to the subway platform as the train sped toward him, the picture appeared on the Post’s front cover. Within hours, observers began deriding both the photographer and the newspaper: the photographer, they said, should have helped the man and avoided taking a picture, while earlier photos by him were critiqued for being soft and of insufficient news value; the newspaper, they continued, should not have displayed the picture, certainly not on its front cover, and its low status as a tabloid was trotted out as an object of collective sneering.
We have heard debates like this before — when pictures surfaced surrounding the deaths of leaders in the Middle East, the slaying of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, the shattering of those imperiled by numerous natural disasters, wars and acts of terror. Such pictures capture the agony of people facing their deaths, depicting the final moment of life in a way that draws viewers through a combination of empathy, voyeurism, and a recognition of sheer human anguish. But the debates that ensue over pictures of people about to die have less to do with the pictures, photographers or news publications that display them and more to do with the unresolved sentiments we have about what news pictures are for. Decisions about how best to accommodate pictures of impending death in the difficult events of the news inhabit a sliding rule of squeamishness, by which cries of appropriateness, decency and privacy are easily tossed about, but not always by the same people, for the same reasons or in any enduring or stable manner.
Pictures are powerful because they condense the complexity of difficult events into one small, memorable moment, a moment driven by high drama, public engagement, the imagination, the emotions and a sense of the contingent. No surprise, then, that what we feel about them is not ours alone. Responses to images in the news are complicated by a slew of moral, political and technological imperatives. And in order to show, see and engage with explicit pictures of death, impending or otherwise, all three parameters have to work in tandem: we need some degree of moral insistence to justify showing the pictures; we need political imperatives that mandate the importance of their being seen; and we need available technological opportunities that can easily facilitate their display. Though we presently have technology aplenty, our political and moral mandates change with circumstance. Consider, for instance, why it was okay to show and see Saddam Hussein about to die but not Daniel Pearl, to depict victims dying in the Asian tsunami but not those who jumped from the towers of 9/11. Suffice it to say that had the same picture of the New York City subway been taken in the 1940s, it would have generated professional acclaim, won awards, and become iconic.
At a time in which we readily see explicit images of death and violence all the time on television series, in fictional films and on the internet, we are troubled by the same graphic images in the news. We wouldn’t expect our news stories to keep from us the grisly details of difficult events out there in the world. We should expect no less from our news pictures.
Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication and the Director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.