Photojournalist Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Whether Capa was talking about distance or empathy, the photographers documenting the war in Ukraine have not had that problem.
Lynsey Addario, on assignment for the New York Times, watched a mother, her two children and an adult companion attempt to run across a bridge that spanned the Irpin River. A Russian mortar hit just as the family made it over, into Kyiv.
Addario took a photo of their four bodies splayed in the street, three faces visible, one of them bloody.
She said she thought, “I can’t take this photo. I must take this photo.”
I’m sure photo editors in newsrooms around the world were saying something similar: I can’t run this photo. I must run this photo. In fact, the photo was published at the top of front pages and news websites around the world.
Those thoughts — I can’t. I must. — perfectly sum up the dilemma as newsrooms view these graphic photos that tell the story of what’s happening in Ukraine probably more effectively than any words could.
The same is true of the AP photo of the pregnant woman being carried away from the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol. So many of us thought, as we looked at the distress clearly visible in her face, that she was being carried to safety — to another hospital where she and her baby would be saved.
But they both later died. And we’d seen the photo showing what were to be some of the last moments of her life. Could there be a greater invasion of privacy?
As newsrooms across the world grapple with the question of which photos to use, the victims’ and their families’ privacy is a major consideration. Should victims be exposed to the world’s prying eyes as they lie dead or dying in the street of a besieged city or on the shore of a country where they drowned while seeking asylum?
Editors sometimes choose not to publish these images out of respect for the deep privacy of the moment surrounding death and the privacy of the families left behind — especially if they might not yet know the fate of their family members. The husband and father of the family lying dead in the street learned they’d been killed on social media. The cruelty of that is beyond words, and no journalist wants to be responsible for inflicting it.
Editors historically have been uncomfortable showing faces of the dead or severely injured, including graphic photos showing blood. Early photos of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, looked almost like paintings done entirely in a beige pallet showing sand dunes and tanks. Not a splash of red blood or a body to be seen. Photos like these sanitize the horrors of war and make the privacy argument less persuasive.
Photographers have the courage to show us exactly what’s happening in these fraught and dangerous situations. And newsrooms must have the courage to publish them
Another argument, often not given enough weight, is that the families of victims killed in conflict often want the world to see what happened to their loved ones: This is how they died. This is where they died. Who was responsible can then be explained in the context of a story.
I recall the photo of the 2-year-old Salvadoran girl on the banks of the Rio Grande who drowned attempting to cross the border with her father, and the cell phone video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died, taken by a teenage bystander, but shared by news outlets around the world.
Publishing these visuals is one way to give voice to the dead and to hold the powerful accountable. These are profound ethical imperatives.
I’ve taught journalism ethics for several decades at UMass. I’ve discovered that the necessity of publishing disturbing visuals is one of the hardest principles for my students to accept. They read the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics, which says photos can: “reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe…”
Still, many of them want to make the safe choice that will not risk offending sensitive readers. Many of them don’t want to look at the photos themselves, and they assume their audiences won’t want to look either.
But I argue that when the actions and/or policies of a powerful government — our own or in this case, Russia’s — lead to death, and especially deaths of civilians, the visual documentation must be published because the news value of doing so outweighs privacy considerations.
I ask my students to imagine who would show us credible, authentic visuals if photographers like Addario weren’t risking their own lives to be in combat zones. (Answer: No one.) They take photos because they know history is unfolding in front of their lenses, and they respect the photographic moment.
When the student journalist at Kent State took the iconic photos of four students lying dead on campus after being shot by the Ohio National Guard, other students were screaming at him to stop: “Why are you doing this?” His answer: “Because if I don’t take these photos, no one will believe this happened.”
Photographers have the courage to show us exactly what’s happening in these fraught and dangerous situations.
And newsrooms must have the courage to publish them — the courage to risk offending.
Because sometimes we all need to be offended. By killers in broad daylight. By inhumane immigration policies. By an unprovoked war waged by Vladimir Putin against the Ukrainian people.
We have a civic responsibility to look at the toll in human lives, and then decide what to do about it.