Tiffany B. Brown

On Haiti: Photo journalism or disaster pornography?

[My] critique is about the tone of unnecessary pictures and videos that show pieces of bodies, dying people, the nudity of people, or the misery/tragedy of people in line for food and water. Seriously, is this cruelty really necessary to mobilize massive humanitarian action?

That’s Valérie Payen-Jean Baptiste, a Haitian elementary school principal discussing the graphic nature of photos published by the New York Times (and others) as quoted by the American Journalism Review.

It’s the age-old question of ethics in journalism: when is publishing a disturbing photo or video cross the line from accurately documenting a scene to being gratuitous and dehumanizing or just plain horrifying?

I remember listening to CNN soon after the World Trade Center attacks. A newscaster explained that they were running the same video clip over and over again because the other clips were just too disturbing to show — video of people jumping to their death or of charred bodies.

I also can’t forget a video clip of the Rwandan genocide that ABC News (“Nightline” if I remember correctly) broadcast one night. I didn’t really understand the horror and the scale of what was happening until I saw that video of bodies — dozens of mostly-clothed human bodies bloated from death — floating down a river.

A dead body or a pile of dead bodies, or a bloodied corpse is hard to look at. But do you get a sense of the human toll by looking at leveled buildings? Do photojournalists have a responsibility to shelter children and the sensitive or tell the full story? And is it possible to tell the full story without graphic images provided those images are an accurate representation of a horrifying, terrifying event?

There’s also the danger of a single story. In good times, Haiti is framed as a hapless country that needs your pity, a stern talking to, and perhaps the international development version of a timeout. The fine line with victim and disaster imagery is that it furthers that narrative.

Also see: how handles graphic or disturbing images that it sometimes publishes in its Big Picture feature covering the February 2010 earthquake in Chile.

(Via A Developing Story, a blog that brings together and promotes multimedia from and about the developing world. The site both highlights and critiques photography, video and photojournalism as it relates to coverage of the Global South.)

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