Exercise: To print or not to print


Read Claire Cozens’ Guardian article about Guerrero’s photograph [of human remains in the 2004 Madrid bombings].

What would you have done had you been the editor of a British broadsheet newspaper?

A similar case revolving around a photograph of a dead Iraqi soldier in the Gulf War prompted Michael Ignatieff, the author of Magnum Degrees, to write and reflect on the ethics of photojournalism. Read ‘But Should You Print It?’


Pablo Torres Guerrero photograph

The controversial image featured a bloodied limb in the foreground, which different UK newspapers treated differently:

  • Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail airbrushed/cloned out the limb altogether
  • Independent and Daily Mirror printed the photo in black and white
  • Guardian desaturated the body part to grey

My view is that none of these responses was the most appropriate.

I agree with the Guardian’s deputy editor of news that the original image “put us over the threshold”, but I found all of the above responses to have fudged the issue in different ways.

  • Those who de-emphasised it using colour didn’t go far enough
    • as they still showed it
  • Those who airbrushed it out went too far
    • as they had visually manipulated the material too much for what is supposed to be a photojournalistic image

I can think of two ways in which the photo could have been used without either of the above issues arising:

1. An overt visual censoring via a black bar covering the body part. Text accompanying the photo could explain the censorship (on the grounds of both respect for the victim and the sensibilities of the readers). This is, in my view, the most ‘honest’ alternative:

Pablo Torres Guerrero 2004 – censored version

2. Even more simply, a cropped version could have got over the same sense of carnage:

Pablo Torres Guerrero 2004 – cropped version

‘But Should You Print It?’

This article by Michael Ignatieff raised a few interesting issues that I hadn’t yet come across in this debate. He starts with listing the four areas of sensitivity in photographic ethics: violence, privacy intrusion, decency and faking.

Faking would seem to cover the Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail treatment of the Guerrero image above, and I agree with the author’s stance on such manipulations: “They cannot be detected. They must always be admitted. The credibility of photojournalism must not be eroded by covert manipulation” (Ignatieff 200?). This leads me to wonder: would the above UK newspapers have been exonerated by adding a disclaimer admitting the manipulation?

The bulk of the article is about violent imagery. It picks apart aspects of the argument, such as whether it is right to take, publish and award prizes to images of violence and suffering (he implies his responses are yes, yes and no respectively).

He also touches on the desensitisation debate with his consideration of how one judges when (and how often) to use violent imagery:

“Photographs of violence do cause distress to many people and that has sometimes to be accepted; but to inflict distress at random is to weaken the case for doing it at all. Circumstances must determine cases, and certainty is elusive.” (ibid)

He also suggests that the geographic scope of a news outlet can move the line of acceptability, with a national newspaper being able to ‘get away with’ more shocking imagery than a local one: “A smaller community may expect its paper to bind wounds, not expose them.” (ibid). This phenomenon of sensitivity increasing with proximity has been observed at an international level before, but maybe it also atomises down to a community level.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the checklist of four tests that he applies to controversial imagery:

  1. Is the event of sufficient social or historic importance to justify the shock?
  2. Is the objectionable detail necessary to understand the subject matter?
  3. Does the subject freely consent?
  4. Is the photograph expressive of humanity?

He asserts that an image has to meet at least one, not all of the four. Applying the list to the Madrid image, I’d say that it may meet 1 and 4 but does not meet 2 and 3.

Where Ignatieff’s article goes a little further than I expected is in his discussion of the specific photo by Kenneth Jarecke of the incinerated Iraqi soldier. Ignatieff moves beyond ethical issues and into moral ones, highlighting the subtle difference between the two. He justifies the publication of the photo (in the UK and France, but not in the US) as he believes that the Western reader must face up to the fact that this war was supported by a significant proportion (possibly the majority) of the populations of the Western powers engaged in it, and that the ‘true horror’ of a war should be shown to those who support it:

“It is right that we should contemplate the results of our convictions … The concept that war is horrible is altogether different from the stunning, practical realisation of horror we have willed.” (ibid)

I may be paraphrasing more than Ignatieff would like, but he seems to be saying that a fifth justification for horrific imagery is this: Does it educate people about the negative consequences of their beliefs?


Editors ‘clean up’ bomb photo http://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/mar/12/pressandpublishing.spain (accessed 29/09/2016)

But Should You Print It? https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/shouldyouprint.pdf (accessed 29/09/2016)

The War Photo No One Would Publish http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-war-photo-no-one-would-publish/375762/ (accessed 03/10/2016)


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