At present there is an extremely minor hubbub in twitter's "photoland" about photographs of dead bodies in Ukraine. After starting out with a "just watch, if these were people of color we'd be seeing lots of bodies, but they're white, so we won't" which turned out to be, oops, wrong. Don't worry, that trope will get dragged out again for the next conflict. Anyway, those same people pivoted without breaking stride to the incredible inappropriateness and very problematicishness of publishing pictures of dead people in a war zone, even if they are pretty white.
The story being bandied about is that a father learned of the death of his family from a
twitter post. Let us stipulate that the story is accurate.
The conceit is that learning about this horror from twitter in some way magnifies the horror
in a substantive way.
I am having a hard time imagining that, to be honest. It's a hammer-blow to the face no matter
what. The tragedy here is the death of the family, not the peculiarly stupid way in which the
father learned of it. I think a cogent argument can be made that by focusing on the "On Twitter,
canyouimagine?!!!" aspect diminishes the larger sorrow.
Let us imagine that, somehow, he'd learned about it from a kindly old lady who made him a nice
cup of tea and had him sit in a comfortable wing-backed chair in a cozy paisley pattern before
breaking the news. Is this really a hell of a lot better? The family is still dead. Sure,
it's probably a little better, but at this point we're measuring a trauma the size of a bus
with a micrometer to find the differences.
No matter what, though, this incident is emblematic of a much larger trend.
The mission is to locate a victim of some sort for every photo. It could be a real person,
or simply a kind of notional one. The next step is to argue that this someone is, was, or in theory could
be hurt in some way by the photo. The degree of hurt doesn't matter. The context doesn't
matter. Any ambiguity doesn't matter. Any good the photo might do doesn't matter. The last step
is to conclude that the photo should not exist. We have
established a victim, and therefore the photo should not have been taken, should not have
been published, and should be withdrawn. Also, the photographer should be punished.
On the one hand there is no doubt that photography as a whole, and photojournalism particularly,
has suffered from a fairly callous outlook. To propose that photographers should take more
care for people who might be hurt by their pictures isn't a crazy position to take.
At the same time, though, to simply swap "we must never chance hurting anyone" for "the public
has a right to know" is to replace one stupid simplification with another.
Just to be perfectly clear: I am not arguing that we should ignore this idea of victimhood. I am arguing
that we should include it with other salient factors.
A photograph is just an arrangement of tones and color, which is inherently harmless. It can carry
information, and information can indeed harm. Mostly it's a twinge, a regret, a sadness, a bad memory.
Sometimes, if we reveal the address of a mob informant, someone gets killed.
Thinking about these things is fine, we ought to do that. But it's not an either/or.
To claim that any potential harm constitutes a veto is to claim that photography should not exist.
Any photo that carries information has the potential to harm, if we're broad-minded about who we're
willing to force victim status on to.
There's a whole side note that could be inserted here about "victim culture" versus "dignity" or "honor" cultures, although in this case the players are assigning victim status as the Ultimate Trump Card rather
than claiming it for themselves. If you're not familiar with this approach to modeling culture, you can look
Some middle road surely is the right approach.