Publishing Controversial Photographs
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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017
Ephron argued that since death is part of life, readers should not be sheltered from it. She asked why photos from fatal car accidents show the wrecked vehicles and not the victims. Mangled steel is worthless; a human life is priceless. Why not capture on film the loss of that which is truly precious? (Ephron, www.haverford.edu/)
The so-named Boston Photographs were taken in 1975 by photojournalist Stanley Forman.. I made all kinds of pictures because I thought it would be a good rescue shot over the ladder, (Ephron, 433) Forman said in explaining why he took the pictures. In the first frame, there is a fireman with his arm around a woman he is attempting to rescue from a burning apartment building. The woman clings to her child. The fireman is reaching for the rescue ladder an arm s length away. It appears that everything will be all right, that the woman and her child will be saved. This picture, by itself, does not foreshadow the tragedy to come. It is a dramatic photograph, to be certain, but one that would assure the viewer that confidence in the bravery and skills of firefighters is not misplaced.
The second photograph shows the fire escape pulling away from the building. Whereas the first photo makes the reader want to cheer, the second one reminds us that something can go wrong. The rescue is not successful until everyone is on the ground and safely away from the burning building. The photo shows, too, that the firefighter did everything he was supposed to do. His training prepared him for a moment such as this. More than anything else, this photo shows that courage and skill are not always enough. No one could have anticipated that the fire escape would pull away from the building. It is a picture that at once captures the good fortune of the woman in being rescued and the horrific moment when her luck turned.
The third photograph is the most dramatic because it shows the woman and her child falling through the air. The child, naturally, looks frightened. Her arms and legs are splayed and we see the speed of her descent with her shirt, which the air has pushed up to expose her round, babyish tummy. Her eyes are open and her mouth is distorted by a grimace.
The mother s fall is even more dramatic because she propels through the air headfirst. The viewer cannot see her face but can only imagine the horror reflected in her expression. It is impossible to know what the woman was thinking. Did she know that she was moments from death? Did she think about her child? Did she ask for God s help, or curse His failure to protect them? The woman is barefoot and she is wearing shorts. On a summer s day, it would be expected that someone be so attired at home. Yet the woman seems particularly vulnerable when dressed this way. She seems so exposed although, of course, long pants and shoes would not have made any difference to her survival.
Who was this woman? We cannot really know anything about her from the picture. We can see that she is young, with the long, gangling limbs of a teenager. She looks like a child and yet she also has a child of her own. The picture causes us to reflect on death made more tragic by the fact that, for this mother and child, they come too soon.
The falling flowerpots add to the poignancy of the photos. The apartment building, obviously older, represents urban life as experienced by someone who is young and poor. The flowers represent an attempt to add a little beauty to the surroundings. What sort of person is it who puts a flowerpot on a window ledge high above the city streets? The flowerpots give us a tiny glimpse into the character of the young woman. We feel we know a little more about her and that makes her death more tragic. To plant a flower is to feel hopeful about the future, and when we see the photograph, we know that the woman s hope in the future, unbeknownst to her, was misplaced. We feel a greater sense of loss.
But do we know her? Of course not. The shocking photo arouses emotion within us and, whether we realize it or not, causes us to ascribe thoughts and characteristics to the victim that we can never verify, even when reading the accompanying news story. Perhaps the young woman did not care at all about the plants. It is even possible that they were left there by a previous tenant of the apartment and went unnoticed by the young mother. Perhaps she did not notice beauty and felt no hope at all for the future she and her child would share. There is no way the viewer of the photograph can ever know any of this for certain.
The newsworthiness of the tragic fire is the photos themselves. Unfortunately, people die in fires in the United States all the time. The accounts of the fires are tragic, but as news stories they are usually only relevant to families and friends of the victims and the people who live in the community where the tragedy took place.
Photographer Forman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photos, expected to record an event with a far different outcome. He was taking advantage of a relatively new technology, a motor-driven camera that allowed a photographer to take a series of pictures in rapid succession. He expected to capture, in still photographs, the sequence of events leading up to a dramatic rescue. Instead, he captured the moments before death. The third photograph as the last that he took of the rescue attempt. I realized what was going on, he said afterwards. I completely turned around because I didn t want to see her hit. (Ephron, www.haverford.edu/)
The pictures are much more powerful than words in telling this story. It is not that words cannot sufficiently describe a scene or convey emotions. Author Stephen King is famous and wealthy because of his ability to construct tales that frighten us. John Grisham has used the power of words to make us feel outrage on the behalf of the underdogs whose stories he tells. Nicholas Sparks writes romances that bring some of his readers to tears.
Forman s pictures tell a story for which each individual viewer provides his own words. More than that, however, the pictures evoke an emotional response that is instantaneous, even quicker than words can form.
The pictures certainly drew attention to the event in a way that words alone would not. Newspaper editors know this and it can be argued that it was for the purpose of selling newspapers, not the imperative to show readers that death is part of life, which motivated them to print the pictures. Charges of sensationalism, voyeurism, and exploitation constituted many of the angry responses from readers. The reality is, though, that graphic images do capture people s attention.
A news story, without photographs, would have dehumanized the tragedy. When we read that a woman fell to her death, our reaction is not nearly as strong as seeing the picture. We may soon forget that a woman died, particularly in reading the story and learning that the child survived. The picture, on the other hand, makes us confront the notion of death head-on. We may experience, even for a fraction of a second, that shiver of fear of falling. We think about what it must have felt like to fall, and what it must have felt like to watch the horror unfold.
The fact that the woman and child were African-American also plays a part in judging the impact of the photo versus a story in words. A written story might not mention race; in a photo, it is there to see. To some viewers, race might matter. People assumed, because the young woman was black, that the burning apartment building was in a ghetto, when in fact it was not. African-Americans might identify more strongly with the photo than they would with just a story; white readers might identify less. For some readers, and it is hoped that it means more of them, not less, race is a non-issue and what they see is not the color of the victims skin but the horror expressed in their faces and body language. It is this horror that writer Ephron believes readers should see, but not because horror itself has value even though it does, in a way, in its ability to sell newspapers. As Ephron pointed out, though, these were great photographs. They captured something real and evoke strong emotion in people who look at them. That they disturb readers, she wrote, is exactly as it should be: that s why photojournalism is often more powerful than written journalism. (Ephron, 438)
The Boston Photographs are by no means the only pictures to evoke strong emotions and cause controversy among newspaper editors and their readership. This essay will discuss two other pictures that were considered controversial at the time they were published.
Seven years before Stanley Forman won the Pulitzer for his photo, war photographer Eddie Adams earned the prize for his now-iconic photo showing the execution of a man by a military officer on the streets of Saigon. As was the case with Forman, Adams never expected that the situation would take such a dramatic and horrific turn.
As Adams told the story in a video entitled An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story, he was in the Chinese section of Saigon on the second day of the Tet Offensive. He saw a man in a plaid shirt being led out of a building and into the street. He followed to see what would happen. He was not surprised or shocked when a man in uniform, a military officer, held a gun to the head of the man in the plaid. Adams interpreted the action as a means of intimidation, a threat used as part of an act of interrogation.
Retrieved from PulitzerPrize.org [http://pulitzerprize.org/photography/vietnam/]
In retrospect, it seems like an incredibly bold and even foolhardy move, to stand with a camera so close to someone with a loaded gun. Adams was an experienced war photographer, however, and danger was part of the job. He did not anticipate what happened next. Adams snapped a photograph; he moved his finger on the camera s shutter in the same instant that the officer pulled the trigger of his gun. The shocking photograph that resulted captured the moment in time when the bullet entered the man s head.
The photograph is shocking for several reasons. The most obvious is the expression on the face of the man in the plaid shirt. It reflects both pain and terror. The lines around the right side of the mouth suggest the rapid and violent movement of the head as an involuntary response to the impact of the bullet.
The man doing the shooting has a matter-of-fact expression. He does not take any pleasure in killing the man, but he does what he feels he must without flinching. He is very certain about what he is doing. Over the left shoulder of the shooter, we see a helmeted soldier wincing at the horrible spectacle before him. There is a military vehicle at the end of the street. There are other people in the street, but there response to the shooting cannot be discerned from the photo. The photograph is shocking because the shooting appeared to take place in broad daylight, in the middle of a city street. The shooter does not appear to be concerned about concealing his identity or his action.
The photo is shocking in its close-up look at violence, and it is violence that is made very personal because we see it from a unique perspective. As with Forman s photo, we do not see death in its aftermath but in the moments before it occurs. Both photos are shocking and frightening. Both photos appear to show people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffer fatal consequences as a result.
Unlike Forman s photo, though, a news story accompanying Adams photo has the power to change one s perception of the brutal act caught on film. Looking at the picture, one might assume that it showed a military man killing a civilian execution-style. There was more to the story. The man in plaid was a Viet Cong Army officer; he was the prime suspect in the murder of an entire family that day. The family belonged to the aide of Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnamese National Police Chief and the shooter in the photograph.
Did it make a difference that the man being shot was on the side of the United States enemy? Perhaps it did to some who looked at the picture and read about it. It may be easier to explain the violence if one can justify it as necessary to bring about justice.
The woman in Forman s picture was a random victim of a very unfortunate accident; the man in Adams photo was a suspected criminal, thought to be responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. Some people, reading about the circumstances under which he was shot, may believe that he deserved to die. Some might believe he deserved to die by virtue of the fact that he was a Viet Cong officer. Killing is part of war. We are not at all surprised that there is death on the streets of Saigon, but we are shocked when an image of it is captured so vividly. There was no justice to be served to the woman who plunged to her death in Forman s photo. We are shocked by her death and surprised by it.
Forman s final photo is prefaced by one in which it looks as though the woman and her child will be rescued. There is no doubt, in looking at Adams photo, the man in plaid will die. It is the more shocking photo of the two because it makes us look right into the face of death. We can hold out hope for a miracle when we look at Forman s photo, and it is only upon reading the accompanying story that one learns the woman died and her child survived. At least there is some good news in that story. There is no miracle in Adams photo and no good news waiting for the reader of the story behind it.
Adams photo, much to his dismay, became an iconic antiwar image. That was never his intent. Forty years later, the image endures. The story behind the photograph matters little. The photo has come to symbolize the horror and brutality of a war to which many Americans were, and still remained, opposed. Even more evocative in its antiwar sentiment is the 1972 photograph by Nick Ut, showing a young Vietnamese girl, naked, screaming, and horribly burned by napalm.
Retrieved from BBC News [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4517597.stm]
The photo needs no accompanying words to explain it or make it any more powerful. It is a heart-breaking photograph of a child in abject terror. There are other children in the picture but it is the nakedness and total vulnerability of the little girl that shocks and saddens us. There is nothing one can write about the horrors of war that exemplify it more than the perils of this child. As with Forman s photo of the mother and child, we can look at the little girl and hope that somehow she will survive this terrible event. Forman s photo showed the terrible circumstances of two people. Ut s photo, on the other hand, showed the terrible circumstances in which millions of people found themselves as a result of the war. The photo is a painful reminder that there are many victims of war, not just the soldiers who fight. It is difficult to look at the photo and not feel outrage, at the same time wishing there were a way to gather up the children and transport them to safety. We know now that the little girl survived; even knowing that, however, does not make the photograph any less shocking.
The final photo to be discussed in this essay was taken September 11, 2001, by photographer Richard Drew. Often referred to as The Falling Man, it depicts one of the many people who leaped from the inferno of the Twin Towers, making the horrible choice to die by suicide than in the smoke and flames.
Retrieved from Esquire Magazine online [http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0903-SEP_FALLINGMAN]
The photo is shocking because, as one first looks at it, it seems to be some sort of optical trick. The vertical lines of the tower do not look like a building. The man does not look as though he is falling. In Forman s photograph, the woman and child fall from the building with arms and legs distended, desperate to seek purchase on anything that would break their fall. By contrast, the falling man appears to be holding a pose and is elegant in the way he does so. He is falling straight downward, his arms at his sides, one leg bent at the knee in a manner that resembles a casual stance.
It is difficult to look at the picture and not be immediately transported back to the horrible events of the day. Much has been written about 9/11 and there were many pictures taken. The falling man was only one of many people who jumped that day, yet it is his picture which touches us the most. Words could not adequately describe the falling man s descent and the emotions the picture evokes.
After an initial look at the picture, one realizes exactly what it depicts: a man hurtling towards his death. Junod (2009) wrote that the body fell at an estimated speed of one hundred fifty miles per hour. The fall would have taken approximately ten seconds. One cannot even imagine the crushing agony the jumpers experienced in the final moments of their lives. What must it feel like to know you have only seconds left to live?
Looking at Forman s photo, one can hope that there was a good outcome. Looking at Adams photo, we see death. The bullet has entered the man s head but, because the camera can capture a fraction of a second, the man has not yet dropped. Looking at Drew s photo, we wee impending death and a man literally falling toward it with grace. It is incredibly sad, both the circumstances of his death and the calm dignity with which he goes to meet it.
Newspapers and television news programs showed photographs of jumpers until there were too many complaints from the public about their indecency. Drew was able to identify, almost with certainty, the Falling Man, yet the family would not provide confirmation, becoming angry when asked to do so. They felt, as did many of the people viewing pictures of jumpers, that showing anyone in the last moments of life robbed those people of their dignity.
Photojournalism can be much more powerful than written journalism. In describing the four photos discussed in this essay, writers would bring their biases to the work. The use of the word bias is not pejorative; it simply means that a writer s knowledge and experience contribute to the interpretation of the photograph.
The four pictures shown are shocking and evoke strong emotion. The depth and range of emotion, however, depends on the person who is looking at the pictures. Each of us notices different elements; each of us is touched in a different way. When reading a newspaper account of a tragedy, we think about the story as we make our way through the printed words. Reaction to a picture is instantaneous and much more powerful. A picture puts us at the scene in a way that words do not.
Ephron illustrated this by including the Boston Photographs in her essay. She discussed the impact of the photos and the controversy they caused. Without seeing the photos, it might be too easy to ask what all the fuss was about. By seeing the photos, one can understand why the inspired strong feelings. Ephron does not argue that newspapers should print photographs of death. She argues that they should print great pictures that tell a story and evoke strong emotional response from readers.
BBC News. (2005). Picture power: Vietnam napalm attack. http://news.bbc.co
Ephron, N. (2005). The Boston Photographs, reprinted in Chris Anderson and Lex Runciman,
eds., Open Questions; Readings for Critical Thinking and Writing (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin s, 2005). Print via Retrieved from http://www.haverford.edu/writingprogram /development/Ephron.pdf
Junod, T. The falling man. Esquire 9/8/09. Retrieved from http://www.esquire.com/features
PulitzerPrize.org. (2010). Photography: Pulitzer Eddie Adams Vietnam. http://pulitzerprize.org
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