A Q&A with Barbie Zelizer, author of About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.
And we're squeamish because images of death and dying turn the depicted individuals into symbols of something greater than themselves. Often powerful and memorable visuals, they are easily embedded within larger agendas, where they are used to support or undermine debates over nationalism, community building, recovery from trauma, catharsis from violence.
Why does our squeamishness recede if the deathly images are of non-Americans or non-Europeans? We barely flinch at the stacked bones of Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge but recoil at pictures of dead or suffering American soldiers. Is this rational or emotional distancing?
Squeamishness is a movable standard that expands or magnifies under certain conditions and shrivels or recedes under others. Emotional in nature, it offers distancing when the pain, discomfort, and stakes in attending are too great.
Squeamishness intensifies when images of death and dying suggest a personal threat, a sense of impending fear or danger. This makes pictures of proximate events—geographically and culturally—those that cause the most discomfort. The pictures of individuals jumping or falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center on 9/11 are a case in point. Though the images originally appeared showing unreal stick figures tumbling jerkily into the gray sky from the side of the buildings—first as a video sequence in the initial hours, then as still shots over the next few days—squeamishness soon surfaced. Columns appeared detailing why journalists had published the images, the images shrunk in size and prominence, and readers and viewers protested the voyeurism they represented. By the weekend, the images for the most part disappeared, and they appeared in virtually none of the retrospective literature about 9/11.
Squeamishness is enhanced when the event being depicted generates heightened sensitivity. In 2004, photos of four dead U.S. contractors in Fallujah, Iraq generated what one observer called "more mainstream media self-examination in one day than the entire attack on Iraq had in a year." Tortured and defiled by an Iraqi mob, the four men's corpses were left to hang on an open bridge. Across U.S. journalism, the news stories of the killings were graphic and unrelenting in their detail, but decisions about displaying the accompanying pictures gave way to debates over the protection of children, concern about pandering to public opinion for or against the war, and worries about possible charges of sensationalism, political bias and lack of patriotism. Reticence over their display pushed editors into lengthy discussions over whether, where, and how to display the images. As they queried whether the duty to publish would change if the corpses were military rather than civilian, Iraqi rather than American, visible human beings rather than charred corpses, women and children rather than men, they eventually moved toward a less graphic set of pictures.
Squeamishness magnifies when images of death and dying show scenes of extreme vulnerability, often those involving women and children. In 1993, a picture of a starving girl in the Sudan, dying as a vulture perched cannily nearby, drove debates over the relationship between decency and vulgarity in news pictures. Though the image appeared in multiple places and was called "a metaphor for Africa's despair," it raised questions about the girl's fate and the tasteful function of photojournalism. The photographer, critiqued widely for not having intervened in securing the child's safety, committed suicide the following year.
In June 2009, when Iranian philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan was killed during election demonstrations in Tehran, news organizations and social networking sites around the world received copies of a cell-phone video that captured the shooting. Though the video was out-of-focus and its author unverifiable, it offered the only visual documentation of the woman's death. At first, some news media opted to show only select still images from the video, while others provided links to the site where it could be found, sidestepping its display in any form. Yet others heavily edited the sequence, blocking out the woman's face, withholding her name, or running a pixilated version of the video. At the same time, the video was instrumental in capturing public attention, and a frame-grabbed still shot of the woman dying soon became a symbol of freedom of expression and human rights, a launch point for debating better cooperation between new and old media and a turning point for new standards of conflict reporting.
Squeamishness differs by location, and one's geographic placement produces different prisms on the same images of death and dying. The British news media were reluctant to publish pictures of Princess Diana dying in the backseat of a car, but those same pictures appeared widely across Italy and in the United States, notably through the efforts of CBS News. The local news media in places directly affected by the 2004 tsunami protested the unfettered display of their dead and dying across the front pages and broadcast and internet spaces of Western journalism. And those same pictures of individuals jumping from the World Trade Center, which disappeared in the U.S. news media soon after the event, appeared more prominently and continuously in the media of Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
How has the rise of nonprofessional photography and publishing—I'm thinking here of the Web—changed our relation to deathly images? How has it changed professional media?
To the extent that professional photographers and photojournalists were ever a unified group (and there are conflicting sentiments on that), they aspired to collective standards that invoked some notion of professionalism. Such standards involved—but did not always accomplish— an embrace of reality, a semblance of accuracy and clarity, an ethical treatment of depicted subjects. Though images were long considered the "fluff" of the news record, secondary to the words at their side, and standards did not come easily, the aspiration toward professionalism in journalism remained uppermost among most news photographers.
Today's digital environment—where amateur images, citizen journalism, and websites devoted to specific and often partisan causes tackle the news simultaneously or even before the mainstream news media—makes it difficult to produce pictures in accordance with the standards of any particular group. Instead, professionals in the business of making news now not only wrestle with an uneven realization of their own standards, but they compete with non-professional photographers pushing a variety of agendas. Thus, regardless of the degree to which images may have initially tried to follow collective standards, they now regularly fall short of them.
The ascent and increasing centrality of so-called "nonprofessional photographers" has changed our relation to images of death and dying in many ways. First, images surface much more quickly than they did in the past. As cell phones, digital cameras, and the Internet make it easier for anyone to take, post, circulate, and share their own pictures of breaking news, the images that appear are less of a studied, edited, and careful visual treatment of the news than a slice by slice depiction of whatever can be readily captured as a picture. When the Columbia space shuttle exploded in 2003, amateur photographers captured its flight downward in distant, ill-focused, and often incomprehensible shots, at times preceding NASA's ability to explain what had happened. Within hours of the explosion, multiple Web sites tracked its coverage so effectively that some were able to show partial, often fuzzy pictures of the shuttle's debris—an astronaut's helmet, pieces of the shuttle—without available narratives to explain what was being shown. Some might argue that this tension between a "good" shot and an available one has always underlined news photography, distinguishing it from pictures taken for primarily aesthetic reasons, but the push for immediacy is more salient when the photographers come from many places and employ many perspectives on the same news event.
Second, contemporary images of death and dying often lack context. Their immediate and often instantaneous appearance can preclude the provision of a context that can easily help explain what is being shown. This lack of context only gets exacerbated over time, when contexts change to fit evolving circumstances. As pictures are easily transported first across news stories in both Web sites and the mainstream news media, and then displayed beyond them in political posters, popular culture, and museums, they take with them parts of the original record but import into the same record different impulses, frames and details. Pictures of people dying during the Vietnam War were recycled into art installations, advertisements, anti-war posters, T-shirts, and record covers. Images of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, shot to death in the Gaza Strip in 2000, now adorn the postage stamps of multiple countries. Pictures of those killed by Cambodia's Pol Pot, documented by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s, appeared widely 20 years later as a prosecutorial tool when they were used to drive proceedings against those accused of the deaths of nearly 2 million people. Though the lack of context has always been at issue in a news image's display—consider the wide-ranging debate that arose over Robert Capa's photograph of a dying Loyalist soldier during the Spanish Civil War—the ready transport of images into new contexts, facilitated now by the Internet, makes it even more problematic.
Photographs of: Barbie Zelizer by Kyle Cassidy; Genesee hotel suicide by courtesy the Buffalo Sate College Archives and the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society; World Trade Center towers by Flickr user TheMachineStops via Wikipedia; World Trade Center jumper by Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images/; Neda Agha-Soltan from YouTube; Columbia disintegration by NASA; Daniel Peral courtesy Canadian Press; Jack Ruby from the Warren Commission/AFP/Getty Images; tsunami by David Rydevik via Wikipedia.