Publishers have always published images of dead or suffering people in times of crisis, such as wars and natural disasters. But the current crisis has produced many more of these images, more widely published online, than ever before.
“It’s all over social media,” says Nancy San Martin, former foreign correspondent and editor of the Miami Herald. And not just online. Traditional journalists also stray from their traditional tendency to avoid highlighting images of deceased people or particularly direct depictions of physical injuries.
But in times of conflict abroad, those usual practices tend to loosen up, San Martin, now deputy editor of National Geographic’s office of history and culture, told me during a briefing. a telephone interview: “War will always open this door. Part of our role is to document the consequences of war and all that it entails.
Editorial oversight has traditionally been part of the equation – the practice of a group of journalists providing context, balancing the meaning and importance of what an image represents with its gruesomeness. They can, for example, choose a different angle of an injured or dead person that shows less blood, or crop an image so that a dead person’s face is not visible, or choose to completely obscure an image while providing written information about what happened.
As a long-time journalist and editor following media, journalism and human rights, I know that images can become public icons symbolizing major events. The flood of images from the Ukrainian war is deep and wide. It contains many potentially iconic images but also shows more raw carnage than in past conflicts.
From the earliest days of photography in the 19th century, war has been a common subject, including during the American Civil War. Some images have become famous, such as Joe Rosenthal’s World War II image of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, signaling the capture of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army in February 1945. It was distributed by the Associated Press and featured on the front pages of many American newspapers.
“There have always been powerful images emerging from conflict,” Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Patrick Farrell told me in a video call. “A still image remains one of the most powerful forms of media. It will stay with you forever.
Many of the famous images are not of victory or glory, but rather of violence and death – and also remain etched in public memory. Nick Ut’s photo of ‘napalm girl’ Kim Phuc and John Filo’s photo of Mary Ann Vecchio mourning student protester Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University show both the foreign and domestic toll of the Vietnam War. They were also transmitted via wire services and chosen to feature prominently in newspapers and magazines across the country.
Photos of bodies piled up in the streets after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and floating in the water in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina the same year are examples of the choices made by editors across the country to feature coverage showing the true human cost of major natural disasters.
Kevin Carter’s 1993 image of a vulture next to a starving child in Sudan is another enduring image of human tragedy that has been published by publishers around the world. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
Wired photos of other tragedies, including Nilufer Demir’s image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Greek beach, and atrocities, like the Abu Ghraib images of American servicemen abusing Iraqi prisoners, are also visceral reminders of complex events.
The difference between these situations and the current situation in Ukraine is the sheer volume of images. There are, as usual in conflict situations, award-winning professional photojournalists in Ukraine who send images back to the media for which they work. But many of them also post images to their own social media accounts or those of their employers – more images than could be posted on a newspaper’s front page or homepage. on the Web.
Also on social media, legions of ordinary citizens take photos with their smartphones and testify, sharing countless images every day.
With “social media floodgates,” as Farrell put it, the media environment in 2022 is different from previous decades. There are now many powerful images competing to become iconic.
It’s “no more graphic than what we saw in Vietnam”, in Farrell’s estimation, but the media cycle then, based on daily newspapers and evening TV news shows, meant there had breaks in the barrage of images.
What concerns Farrell, and me, is that there is less editorial control over which images reach the most eyeballs, even in professional newsrooms.
With social media in the mix and endless competition to be first, publishers publish and distribute images with less regard for traditional editorial restraint and the balance between gore and meaning – and with less context on the pictures themselves.
Context is key
An important part of this context is that, in a way, life goes on, says San Martin. Despite the carnage and chaos of war, she says, places that experience war are still places where people make their living. Her husband, Joe Raedle, an award-winning Getty Images photographer, has been on the ground in Ukraine documenting both the refugee exodus and daily life – cultural performances, restaurants serving free meals, churches offering comfort – and a man playing the piano on the street, having left his family behind while fleeing the fighting.
“It’s a different kind of warfare. Still heartbreaking,” she says, noting that there is more going on than the mainstream images show. These elements, she predicts, will become more important for comprehensive coverage of events in Ukraine as the war continues. It will be, as she says, “a long journey”.
It is normal for the media to focus on the immediacy of a conflict or a disaster and highlight the most dramatic, even the most horrific events. But what San Martin reminds me of, and what I’ve seen in my work, is that journalists often give less importance to the processes behind events and the surrounding context – including survival, determination and resilience of those affected.
The sensational images circulating on social media are also incomplete – even potentially false, whether shared by propagandists or their innocent dupes. They represent an important and alarming reality. But there is more to the picture than that.