Monday, February 1, 2010

Haiti photos: gruesome, sensational — or just plain truthful?

I’m sure you’ve seen it by now — images of devastation-stricken Haiti. Turn on a TV, visit a news Web site or open a newspaper and you’re certain to find photos and videos of a crumbling city and struggling citizens.
In my last post, I brought to light a recent article about the ethical considerations of reporting in Haiti. But even more apparent and striking are the photos that have come from photojournalists in Haiti.

Aside from ethics, something else I'm very passionate about is photojournalism. I recognize the raw power photographs have and their ability to express so much in such a simple way.
Almost immediately after Haiti was ravaged by the worst earthquake it has seen in more than 200 years, hundreds of journalists fled to Haiti with their cameras in tow. Most hoped to capture images that would help give outsiders an understanding of the widespread devastation the small Caribbean nation faces. 

And almost as soon as many of these images were broadcast, they were met with harsh criticism. Many critics argue it is unethical, exploitative or simply in bad taste to publish photos of such blatant human suffering. But what surprised me were those who defended the images, including the ombudsmen/public editors at the New York Times and Washington Post.
Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, examined the issue in his Jan. 23 article Face to Face With Tragedy. Hoyt quoted some of the readers' reactions, that the photos were gruesome, sensationalistic and exploitative. The specific photo he pointed to were indeed gruesome: One photo depicted a father mourning the death of his 10-month-old daughter who lay atop a massive pile of dead bodies; another photo shows "a man covered in gray dust, lying alone, dead, statue-like, on a stretcher made from a piece of tattered cardboard."
I felt the explanation of the photojournalist himself summed up the exact issue at hand: Damon Winter, after being begged by Haitians to come to their homes to photograph the dead bodies of their loved ones, had to turn people down. He said it was heart-breaking because "they so desperately want people to know what has happened to them, what tremendous pain they are in, and that they desperately need help."
Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander discussed the same issue is his Jan. 24 column Horrible images of death in Haiti. One of the Post's most striking photos depicts a man crawling through rubble beside a girl who had been crushed to death by debris. 
Post readers had similar complaints: The photos were too graphic, sensational and didn't belong on the front page, where one reader said he had "no choice but to look." 
Ultimately, both men agreed with their publications' choices to run the photos. Alexander said, "Journalism is about truth, and the horrific images convey reality." And this, I believe, is what it's all about.  
Sure, it might be hard for some to stomach the images, but for the vast majority of others, it is a wake-up call — a chance for them to step outside of themselves. The visual coverage has pushed the issue to the forefront of the conversation — from Twitter to TV — and has allowed people, especially those who otherwise don’t follow the news, to see a genuine representation of what’s happening in Haiti. 

(Embedded photos courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme's Flickr page at

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