September 1, 1939

I spent the last couple of months re-reading Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography. It was hard and I had to stop a few times. Not because the book isn’t well written – it’s a fascinating, fine-grained observation of Hitler’s life from birth to death. But a lot of the facts and circumstances Ian Kershaw describes are too depressing to stomach without a pause.

The book challenges what we, the post war generations, take for granted: That life is more or less good, that people are more or less good. That there’s hope, after all.

One of the most harrowing chapters is Germany’s invasion of Poland and the following occupation. Poland was a turning point – Germany, already a dictatorship for six years committing atrocities against humanity, turned to methodical genocide.

That genocide, as historians have shown by reference to many sources and examples, was obvious to almost everybody who was part of the invasion. The “Einsatzgruppen” killings didn’t happen in secrecy. Even ordinary policemen were part of the execution commandos.

Now, 75 years after the invasion, some people who have witnessed it first hand, are still alive – on both sides. Nonetheless, life goes on. The relations between Poland and Germany are based on reconciliation, even friendship.

Think about it for a minute.

From a Polish perspective it would have been understandable to close the borders for a century and kindly ask Germans to get lost until further notice. But they didn’t.

We’re lucky to have great neighbors like Poland.

Why show dead people in the news?

There’s a sentiment I’ve encountered again lately: Don’t show photographs of dead or injured/traumatized people in the news. Why? Because “showing this doesn’t add anything to the story”, because “showing the dead takes their dignity”, because “children shouldn’t see this.”

While I respect why people would argue like this, I assume most if not all arguments actually originate from a very human desire:

Don’t make me feel uncomfortable.

It is not a new sentiment, of course, and it’s OK on its own. News coverage has often been challenged to find a balance between a proper, fair representation of reality on the ground and the absorbing capacity of its audience.

But that balance, with its indisputable imperfections, seems to become less important lately. When in doubt, making sure visual news don’t leave the comfort zone has priority now. Browsing through historical pics illustrates this all the more.

Take a minute and watch a few iconic photographs that have been published in the 20th century. Ask yourself – would they (or similar subjects) appear on a 2014 newspaper front page, on a quality news website or on TV evening news? Would they appear in your medium?

The Falling Soldier

Never. Probably.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

I doubt it. Maybe. Probably accompanied by a debate about children’s privacy.

Massacre in Vinnytsia

Never.

Napalm attack on Trang Bang

Never.

Saigon execution

Never. Ever.

Massacre in Bijeljina

Most likely not.

I link to these pictures because I think they demonstrate how hasty and misguided a notion like “photographs of dead or injured/traumatized people are not adding to the story” is. As a matter of fact not much adds more to a story than pictures capturing reality. From a journalistic perspective their impact can’t be overestimated. It is the photographs people remember after decades. I’m worried about a tendency to skip those uncomfortable pics.

But where are the limits, I hear you ask. And you’re right. Showing gruesome details in high resolution doesn’t add to a story. We’re in the news business, not in gore, after all.

On the other hand making the dead completely disappear in the editing process doesn’t help either. I guess showing dead bodies in the context of war coverage is a simple necessity – because cutting out that people die in a war would be perceived as a distortion of reality.

Let’s not forget that photographers on the ground are journalists like the rest of us, committed to standards and a proper representation of facts. It must be weird, disheartening to wade through dead bodies for days and see only innuendo pics being published.

Is there a pragmatic solution? I think so. Do show dead bodies if they are part of the story – but be careful choosing the right pictures. Documenting death doesn’t mean it has to qualify as an anatomy course. Looking back at the New York Times front page photograph, I’d argue it was OK to publish. It hurts to watch, agreed. But that alone is no reason to reject it.

Then there’s dignity. From all arguments against showing dead people dignity seems the most questionable to me. The very core of photo journalism is reporting about the world as it is – in some cases that means showing how people are treated without dignity, how they have been left behind (sometimes dead) without dignity in the most miserable conditions.

Making this public is a photo journalist’s only weapon of change.

Not allowing a photo journalist with a conscience to tell unpolished stories of debasement, violence and injustice means reducing her/his job to story illustrating. It’s almost impossible to do dedicated photo journalism without exposing subjects and their humiliations.

As for children and news coverage of war and death, I’m not sure what to think. I have no children, so I guess it’s not my business to lecture parents. However, looking at the enormous amount of intense war and catastrophe footage that is freely available online, I doubt it’s a good idea to leave it to Liveleak (you’ve been warned) e.a. to introduce children to various flavors of mortality. Not hiding the newsworthy dead from children while embedding the uncomfortable news in context and values seems a more reasonable approach to me.

Thoughts, comments? Let me know via Twitter.