11 February 2011

A Question Prompted by The World Press Photo Awards

A man throwing the body of a dead child at the morgue of the
general hospital, Port-au-Prince, Jan. 15, 2010.
(AP Photo/Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP)

I came across this photograph at "In Focus" over at The Atlantic where it was part of this post showing some of the 2011 World Press Photo winners in various categories. I generally take a pretty permissive stance on what is a justifiable subject for photography - whether art or documentary or photojournalism. There are lots of things that are a waste of time, or simply not to my taste, but so what. I am not too patient with the squeamish.

There are a lot of things about the world that it is hard to imagine. And photography is, as philosopher Patrick Maynard points out, a technology that usefully amplifies our capacity to imagine. Generally, I think this is a necessary task. And it identifies the intersection of politics and photography understood (regardless of genre) as an art. This image takes me right up to - maybe across - the bounds of possibility. I find it excruciating. And, no, I cannot imagine being this child's sibling or parent or neighbor. And I cannot imagine, either, being the worker at the morgue.

On the other hand, this is the reality of an epidemic. I have just shown my undergraduate students films on James Nachtwey and Sebastião Salgado, both of whom photographed the mass deaths from cholera in the refugee camps housing Hutus who had fled following the genocide in Rwanda. Their images depict earth moving equipment being used to scoop up piles of corpses and dumping them in mass graves. Gruesome, but important in keeping the epidemic from getting worse. This photograph nevertheless seems worse - meaning more brutal - to me.

So, my question is whether this image crosses the line. I am undecided. It seems as though various editors are undecided too. You will not find it reproduced among the images in the report of the WPP awards at The Guardian [1] or the BBC [2]; but it is included without comment in the reports at The National Geographic [3] and The New York Times [4]. At The Atlantic you have to click through this message - Warning: This image may contain graphic or objectionable content. Click to view image - before viewing the image.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

I don't think the photo crosses any ethical line as far as photojournalism is concerned.

What has crossed the line for decades is how the people of Haiti have been abused, raped and plundered by foreign powers since its very inception.

13 February, 2011 22:05  

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