Press Box

Deadly Images

A Q&A with Barbie Zelizer, author of About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.

Barbie Zelizer

The camera’s eye brings to journalism a cornucopia of images: Grip-and-grins, parades, head shots, coronations, sporting matches, political protests, and unleashed dogs running in the park. But ever since photographs started elbowing their way into newspapers more than a century ago, a different kind of picture, one that did not illustrate a story but is the story, has become a distinct subgenre of photojournalism—the deadly image.

The emergence and cultural meaning photographs of the dead, the dying, and the potentially doomed published in the press and on the airwaves is the subject of Barbie Zelizer’s densely packed, enlightening new book, About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.

Zelizer, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, charts the course of deadly images in media history to explain our tortured, often duplicitous relationship with scenes of death, assassination, execution, suicide, gore, mutilation, and doom.

The interview was conducted via e-mail over the last weeks of 2010 and the first week of 2011.

Where did the modern taboos against depictions of the dead, the dying, and the potentially doomed come from? Fine art is filled with such images, some of them documentary in nature. Yet controversy greets every publication or broadcast of these pictures and videos. Why?

U.S. journalism has long been responsible for showing pictures of the dead and dying, but it’s less comfortable doing so today than perhaps at any other time in its history. The taboo around death images, by which journalists could talk death in the news but not show it, was spawned by multiple developments: Changes in the larger political climate, an improved technology that made graphic images more attainable, heightened public sensitivity to the coverage of certain news topics, and changing conventions about how much human gore journalists could show and people would be willing to see all made journalism’s discomfort with pictures of the dead and dying an integral part of contemporary journalism.

“Genesee Hotel Suicide,” Buffalo Courier Express, May 7, 1942

Reticence over pictures of the dead and dying wasn’t always the case in journalism. During the early 20th century, when photography was a new technology inching its way into journalism, there was a collective eagerness to show the graphic images of death that validated the professionalization of news photographers and the immediacy of the news they provided.

But from the middle of the 20th century onward, that uniform excitement was progressively offset by other priorities and expectations. Still photos were no longer thought to offer the same kind of cutting-edge documentation, faster film and lenses intensified the graphic character of death images, wartime and political censorship became more of a prominent means of controlling images of death, and conventions about showing and viewing death were increasingly driven by a public sentiment that death in the news should remain unseen and non-graphic. Not only did this diminish much of the earlier celebration of journalism’s death images, but it gave way to a more varied and vocal response among all sorts of viewers about what kinds of images the news should show. As graphic images of death and dying were more and more thought to offend standards of decency, propriety and tastefulness, debates over those standards intensified, most markedly in the contemporary digital environment, where the locus for evaluating images—and often for determining which images to show—no longer rests only with journalists.

This discomfort with showing and seeing journalism’s pictures of the dead is odd for two reasons: If we are willing to show and see so many graphic images of death in art, cinema, television, and the Internet, why are we not willing to show and see them in journalism? And if we are willing to watch, read and listen to news stories about death, why are we not willing to see those same deaths in pictures?

So what’s the answer? Why are we so squeamish?

We’re squeamish because news pictures of the dead and dying are of real people and real events. If a news image works, it penetrates, lingers, forces our attention to the events involving death that it depicts. If a news image works, it doesn’t disappear when we cast aside the newspaper, dim the TV or turn off the Internet. That may be more intrusion than most people are willing to allow.

World Trade Center towers

We’re also squeamish because showing a picture of someone dead or dying represents an invasion of privacy. As the news media have become more ubiquitous and the channels for news relay more immediate, the ethical obligation to respect individual privacy becomes harder to uphold. Concerns about voyeurism, regard for individual privacy, and respect for the dead all drive the reticence about showing images of death and dying.

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.

World Trade Center victim leaps to death

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.

Screen grab of the mortally wounded Neda Agha-Soltan

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.

The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrating during re-entry

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.

Egyptian postage stamp of Mohammad Aldura

Third, nonprofessional photographers have made it harder to agree about what kinds of images of death and dying should be shown and seen. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006, two video executions surfaced—one, captured by official photographers, suggested the event was a sedate and respectful affair; the other, taken by guards using cell-phones, portrayed the execution as a charged and angry event. Such lack of agreement also existed long before the active presence of amateur online images: During the 1990s, images of bloodletting in Liberia documented rival militias engaging in gun battles through the streets of Monrovia, but the horrific scenes they depicted were generally rebuffed by the U.S. news media while garnering widespread awards. Still, the ascent of nonprofessional photographers online has intensified an already existent inability to agree.

And finally, the ascent of nonprofessional photographers, coupled with the easy access to the Internet, has made it easier for many kinds of nonjournalists—politicians, human rights officials, aid workers, bereaved parents, bystanders, members of militias—to make the call about which images of death and dying should be shown. When pictures of captured Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl surfaced in Pakistan in 2002, few in the mainstream news media hesitated about displaying the pictures taken before he was beheaded. The fact that those images were taken by the individuals responsible for his death raised the question of who gets to decide which images of death and dying deserve attention. Here, too, the tension is older than new media: Recall the debate over the Zapruder film, where a Dallas dressmaker captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on film and was then denied its public display for years. But the qualities that make the internet so immediate and ever-present  exacerbate too the capacity of a wide range of people to push an image’s display.

Daniel Pearl

The impact of all this on the mainstream news media should be obvious. Not only do photographers for the mainstream media need to compete with images that are pushed by nonjournalists, lack context, may not generate agreement, and are often instantaneous to the detriment of clarity, but they need to do so in an environment where newsmaking itself has become fundamentally riddled with political, economic, and technological challenges. In a sense, then, the ascent of nonjournalistic photographers has only magnified tensions that were already forming within so-called photojournalism itself.

We’ve talked a lot here about images of death, but very little of about-to-die images. My last questions—prompted by you—is this: Why have the two classes of images converged in the public consciousness. Why do they carry such emotive power–often more power than pictures of the dead? Would we benefit by separating them in our minds? Assuming so, what can professional journalists do to put distance between them?

The two classes of images have converged because images of impending death work in many cases more effectively as news pictures than as images of the already dead. Pictures of people facing death—what I call the “about to die” image—provide a kind of escape hatch for everyone involved. They allow the news media, where images have never been the primary focus, to provide pictures that are not overly graphic, and they allow the public to attend to difficult events without having to see gruesome pictures. Consequently, because they help the media provide their necessary news coverage while giving the public a sense that it is receiving a close record of what happened, images of impending death are often lumped together with images of death itself. It’s as if the manual labor of depiction is getting done without getting one’s hands dirty.

And yet, though the two classes of pictures both address death, they work in different ways. Pictures of people about to die, less final than images of death, capture a particularly powerful moment in the middle of a sequence of action—a child about to keel over from starvation, a woman about to be engulfed by a mudslide, a dirigible about to explode—and freeze it for repeated display and engagement. Focusing on the human anguish of people facing death, they replay this moment in news and beyond without necessarily showing visual evidence that the people in fact died. Viewers thus can and do go in many directions with an image’s interpretation—refuting death, debating its particulars, providing multiple and often erroneous contexts for its understanding.

Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald

Pictures of people about to die, less graphic than pictures of corpses and body parts, also play on different parts of a viewer’s psyche. Where images of dead bodies often push viewers away, creating a sense of distance and objectification, images of impending death do the opposite: They often draw viewers in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective involvement, inviting debate.

These differences are critical, and they challenge both what we think we know about news images and how we think the public responds to them. About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and public response work, suggesting that certain news pictures do not surface by playing to the much-touted rational and reasoned understanding that journalism is supposed to provide. Instead, images of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict. Do we know for certain that the little boy being herded by Nazi soldiers out of the Warsaw Ghetto really died or that the people shown being swallowed by giant waves in the 2004 tsunami did not survive? We do not and often cannot know what happens beyond the camera’s frame, but viewers eagerly complete the sequence of action that is not shown in ways that reflect their expectations and desires of what they do see. The image—with its often repeated, patterned, and prominent discussion, display and recycling across the news media and the online environment—thus helps us engage with the events it depicts regardless of how complete, accurate or truthful is the information it provides.

About-to-die images suggest a broader set of impulses in the news than we have assumed. Focusing on the “as if” of news relay, these images play to what could be rather than what is. Instead of supporting pictures as a documentation of reality, images of impending death push the “as if” of what they depict as much as what transpires on the ground. Their play to the conditional, imagined, emotional, playful, hypothetical, possible, and uncertain sides of the news suggests that images are more than just carriers of reason. They transport reason and emotions, evidence and suggestion, certainty and contingency, truth-value and imagination, rational understanding and extra-rational meaning, and they call on us to better understand how all these impulses actively shape public response to the news.Clarification, Jan. 6, 2011: The original version of this interview included a photo purported to be of the 2004 tsunami. Because we cannot verify where or when the photo was taken, we’ve deleted it.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.