Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be. ~Duane Michals
President Obama’s decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.
- Osama bin Laden’s body: the world’s most incendiary image | Art and design | guardian.co.uk
The article quoted above is really worth a read - it very thoughtfully explores the ethical debate surrounding photographic imagery of war, conflict and tragedy.
On one hand I find it it fascinating how even now we put so much store in the ‘truth’ of the photograph. Despite the proliferation of photoshopped images we still inherently see photography as proof. That said it’s fairly easy to weed out the altered images - as Demi Moore recently found out - but context is just as easy to ‘fix’ and far harder to identify.
Photography (and video for that matter) in war, conflict or tragedy will always be emotionally charged because it is disturbing in it’s self and doubly so because we are in the position of a mute observer. Add to that a political charge or bias and the role of the war photographer can become incendiary. Does this mean we should be shielded from it? I don’t know but I do know it should be objective and not politically motivated - of course it never will.
Do I want or need to see the bodies of political figures? Again I don’t know - but I’ve seen River Phoenix’s corpse. I’ve seen Marilyn Monroe’s. I’ve seen Michael Jackson’s - blown up to fill the front page of OK magazine. The BBC posted the audio recording of the 911 call for Michael Jackson’s death on their website. Similarly much of the imagery coming out of Japan after the tsunami was horrific - and again featured in giant colour slideshows on the BBC website. Need I even mention the people jumping from the Twin Towers on an endless loop of international news?
Like I say I’m not sure whether I think it’s our duty to absorb this stuff or just another form of rubbernecking - but I do believe we have to be honest about our motives in showing (or not showing) these images. Is it to feel the reality of these situations we are not personally experiencing more acutely - or to sell papers, to drive propaganda or to shield us from the truth?
Either way the photographer - be that professional or otherwise - is surely still one of the most important components of news reportage, yet so rarely acknowledged.