How Journalists Decide What War Photos are Too Awful to PublishBreaking News
tags: photography, journalism, War Reporting
The scene was ghastly. Four people lay sprawled on the pavement in the immediate aftermath of a mortar strike on civilians fleeing a Ukrainian town Sunday morning. A mother and two children were already dead as soldiers knelt over a man who had been with the family, frantically trying to save him as he took his last breaths.
A New York Times photographer approached from behind a nearby building and aimed her camera.
Like many war images, Lynsey Addario’s photo of the dead and dying was never guaranteed to be published. Newsrooms have for decades been cautious when it comes to displaying such graphic images, weighing the journalistic benefits of chronicling the horror against the distress it might cause readers and the victims’ families.
But, as their colleagues around the world have done with many other disturbing images from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Times’s photo editors decided that, in this case, exposing the war’s brutality outweighed decorum. Addario’s photo led the Times’s website Sunday, and was splashed across the top of the front page of the print newspaper on Monday, spanning five of its six columns.
“The image was so exceptionally graphic that the conversation was elevated to a high level [among editors] fairly quickly,” said Meaghan Looram, the newspaper’s director of photography. “But the sentiment was universal. This was a photograph that the world needed to see to understand what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.”
Scenes of war have shocked the public’s conscience ever since photojournalists could reach the battlefield. Americans were shaken by the first photo of dead infantrymen published by Life magazine in 1943 during World War II, and by footage of Marines killed in action in the 1944 documentary “With the Marines at Tarawa.” Photographs of a suspected Viet Cong collaborator being executed and a girl screaming in pain from napalm burns helped turn the American public against the Vietnam War.
More recent crises have produced images that have drawn condemnation, praise and revulsion, such as that of a drowned migrant toddler in Greece in 2015, an elderly man in his bombed-out apartment in Syria in 2017, and the bodies of a father and daughter who sought to enter the United States from Mexico in 2019.
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