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Photography’s Ethical Qualms

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There's a fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie wrote, “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.” What is done—or not done—with the photograph after that moment, is also a moral decision. One image that immediately comes to mind when thinking about this quote is the naked girl, running down the middle of a street after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The photo, taken by Nick Ut, was published only after Ut’s editors made an exception to the frontal nudity policy that was in place.

As the U.S. engages in airstrikes in Iraq yet again, it’s somewhat astonishing that there aren’t iconic images from the previous forays in the country. One reason is that the media’s focus has been trained on U.S. troops —whether it’s embedding with them during missions or telling their stories once they’ve returned. Another reason is that photos which may be sensitive security-wise have to be screened by military information bureaus before getting the go-ahead to be released.

While in Iraq in 1991 photographer Kenneth Jarecke took a wrenching photo of a burned-out convoy in which there were incinerated corpses, one of which looked like he had been trying to escape from the truck as it burned. In taking the photo, Jarecke remarked, “But if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies. It’s what I came here to do. It’s what I have to do.” While it was approved to be distributed by the military information bureau, no U.S. magazines or newspapers ran it. The decision surprised the photographer who said, “When you have an image that disproves that myth, then you think it’s going to be widely published.” That myth, that the war was made up of “surgical strikes,” making it sound neat and clean, was of course not the whole story. Debate went on at many major publishing outlets like the Associated Press and LIFE, but as the managing editor of TIME told the photo director, “TIME is a family magazine.”

Other powerful images have made it into newspapers and magazines although in different forms. In a 2012 image from Afghanistan, a 12-year old girl, wearing bright green, stands screaming amid bodies following a suicide bombing in Kabul. The photograph was published on the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, however each ran different versions with some cropping out the foreground where there was a dead baby.

This past May, discussion arose after photos circulated showing two teenage girls who were gang raped and then hung in India. Some websites chose to blur out the faces of the girls who were cousins. On The New York Times’ mobile app, they showed the photo from the shoulders down. The father and uncle of the girls said he, “didn’t have any problems in people taking the photographs; the problem is the thing that happened with our children.”

As war and atrocities continue to unfold, so does the fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality. It’s the media’s job to discern where that line holds and to use photos that aren’t violent for the sake of being violent, but to choose the ones that have a story to tell. After all, without Nick Ut’s image, we wouldn’t come to know the rest of the story of the so-called “Napalm Girl”—her name is Kim Phuc and she now lives in Canada with her husband and two children. She has kept in touch with Ut, who drove her to the hospital after taking the photograph and also won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Phuc says, “I can accept the picture as a powerful gift.”

Photo by Emilio Labrador, licensed under Creative Commons.