Exercise: Kaplan and Houghton


Read the articles ‘Walk the Line’ by Max Houghton (Foto8, issue 23, pp.143–4) and ‘Imaging War’ by Jonathan Kaplan (Foto8, issue 23, pp.142–3).

Write down your reactions to the authors’ arguments.


Imaging War

Kaplan is both a surgeon and a photojournalist – often at the same time and often in war zones. He makes enlightening comparisons between the two jobs, particularly the judgement needed on ‘how far to go’ and when to step back – based on a combination of knowledge, experience and intuition.

He speaks in a matter of fact way about the gruesome conditions in which he works, yet manages to hold onto an ethical stance on what should be photographed and shown to the public. Interestingly, one of the things he said in the article demonstrated (in a roundabout way) the point that one doesn’t need to show the gory details to get a point across, you can let the viewer use their imagination to fill in the details – something I discussed in my last post regarding the use of metaphor and allusion in war photography. In this case however, he managed to paint a picture with only words: “where some of their injuries have been caused by flying pieces of other men” – this mental image was perhaps more powerful to me than a real image of a severed limb.

The final point of note in the article was the anecdote about having images (of landmine victims’ amputation surgery) for a book being pulled by the publisher. Evidently a line would have been crossed. The reason given was that a casual browser may be put off buying the book if they flicked through it in a bookshop, and it would therefore risk not getting the intended message across (I am giving them the benefit of the doubt that it was not purely a commercial decision…).

As Kaplan concludes, “The question of what kind of images of the human body are considered suitable for publication is one that rightfully persists.”.

Walk the Line

Houghton picks up this point of where to draw the line and examines it in more detail.

The first point I picked up on was that while there are overall societal norms on where to ‘draw the line’ – such as not showing dead bodies – these can be shifted based on individual ethics, publications’ editorial ethics, national ethics (US press won’t show dead US soldiers) and the passage of time. However, these shifts away from the norm are small and gradual.

Houghton highlights that some images are deemed inappropriate (e.g. the 9/11 ‘Falling Man’) while others are accepted (e.g. mutilated bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Luc Delahaye’s Taliban soldier, the Kenyan mother). I fear that there is an underlying ‘Othering’ going on here: perhaps it’s considered fair game in the West to closely examine the dead or dying body of a non-Westerner, but to do so with ‘one of us’ would be deemed unacceptable.

This brings me on to a concern I have on this ethical question of where to ‘draw the line’: one can divide the ethical issue of depicting suffering into two categories:

  • Concern about breaching the bounds of good taste in the viewer
  • Concern about breaching the human dignity of the victim

I often think that the Western media is more concerned about the former than the latter, although the latter increases in importance when it is a Western victim.

The example of the Kenyan mother is somewhat problematic for me. The re-publication of the image, in colour, is justified as the journalist had put a name to the victim and filled in the details of the personal story. All this is admirable, but telling the woman’s story did not need the reproduction of the image in full colour; that part feels unnecessary. It’s as though the humanising of the victim by the investigative work of the journalist had been reversed by the objectification of the dying body.

It smacks of the old press maxim ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. The quote from Sophie Batterbury, picture editor of the Independent on Sunday – “The gore tends to distract from any emotion or feeling other than basic revulsion at the image rather than the tragedy that is being illustrated.” – might well be the case, but it does sidestep the question of whether the gore helps to sell newspapers.

This reading has left me with more questions than answers. Kaplan and Houghton both, in slightly different ways, say the same thing: there’s a ethical line that needs to be drawn. But neither author gets into a meaningful discussion of why we need the ethical line. The double standards around Western vs non-Western dead bodies leads me to conclude that it’s more to do with offending readers’ sensibilities than respecting victims, and that doesn’t sit well with me.


Imaging War https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue23 (accessed 22/09/2016)

Walk the Line https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue23 (accessed 22/09/2016)


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