04/18/13 756 W - + 3 - 1 Ethics of Disaster Photography


That's the abridged headline of this Flavorwire blog posting by Tom Hawking, one of a number of stories and essays on the web (and probably on Facebook, now the ultimate crowd-comment platform) that have started examining the photography, news media, and social media issues that presented themselves during and after the bombings in Boston this week. Let's click through some stories, and form some reactions or even some deep thoughts.

We'll start with this New York Times story, from their web front page, about news media weighing the use of photos of carnage. They note a couple particular things that happened in the wake of the tragedy. First, the Daily News of New York digitally covered a wound on a victim's leg for a front page photo. Doctoring news photos are a traditional no-no. Maybe even a firing offense. (The National Press Photographers Association, notes the story, doesn't allow altered images. You can crop, or not publish.)

Second, the Atlantic posted (with a warning) a very, very, very graphic image (victim in wheelchair with amputation wounds), which brought complaints. (Most news agencies cropped the photo above the injuries.) Shortly thereafter, the Atlantic blurred the victim's face, which returns the conversation to doctoring while also adding a privacy component. (Can't readily recall face-blurring in news photos, but maybe it's more common than realized.)

The Times story compelled a Google search on the keywords "Boston bombing photo ethics," which led me to this PetaPixel posting titled A Blurry Double Standard? The photography blog cites another blogger's comment, regarding victim privacy in contrast to what's shown from oversees. From the Facebook page of Melissa Golden, she writes and they quote: "Since when do legitimate print journalism outfits modify photos like this? Run it or don’t, but don’t enact a double standard for Americans when we’re totally cool running unadulterated photos of bombing victims from foreign lands."

Let's ease away from political conversation, however. The PetaPixel bloggers walk through their initial support of "face blurring," and then confront their second thoughts. Quote them, "When it comes to newsworthy items, we should not allow ourselves to censor the flow of information." Yes, children should be shielded from horrific images. But in cases where dozens if not hundreds of people witness an event--and see the victim and their gruesome injuries--issues of privacy (or, say, jeopardizing prosecution) aren't present. (They argue.)

My next click takes me to the Hawkins posting referenced at the start of this posting. He makes a number of notable points, such as the changing model of distribution. In the past, such images reached the masses solely through news agencies or those republishing their photos. The events of September 11, 2001, he notes, "represented a real change on this front." Thought it took place before we were fully YouTube- and Twitter-ized, it "corresponded with the growing ubiquity of digital photography and widespread internet connections."

Hawkins cites a Vanity Fair essay that argues 9/11 was the most-photographed breaking news event in human history. Even as such he notes, there were huge debates at the time over where to whether to publish certain photos. Note a couple key concepts, editorial decision making and a process for publishing. But what happened in Boston? As Hawkins notes, images and footage started appearing online within seconds of the explosions. Graphic footage began reaching the masses immediately. And which raises all sorts of great questions, from how will we (as the masses) be affected by such real-time awful images to the importance of multiple "subjective visual perspectives" to understanding history.

How's that for some heavy morning reading? But what about ourselves, from the responders who find themselves in the thick of unfolding tragedies while cameras click away, to the non-news photographers drawn to such events, and with their own means of distribution (blogs, web sites, Facebook, etc.)? Great question. Answer forthcoming. Or perhaps our readers will expand the discussion.

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