On 14 August 2009, AP photographer Julie Jacobson witnessed Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard being hit by a grenade during a Taliban ambush of his squad in Afghanistan.
Jacobson, embedded with the U.S. Marines, took a picture of Bernard being tended to by his companions. Bernard died later at the compound during surgery. Jacobson immediately recognized the sensitivity of the image and sent it to her employer, The Associated Press (AP) with clear instructions to hold it for review. In line with the military embed rules, she had made the photo from a respectful distance, using a 200mm lens.
Also in line with the rules, AP withheld the picture until after Bernard’s burial. After an internal discussion about whether it should be released at all, the picture was sent out with a package of additional material providing context to the image and the decision to release it. According to the news agency, the photo gave a rare view of the real consequences of war, its complexity, brutality and sacrifice.
Bernard’s father, who had been shown the photo in advance, objected strongly that publication would dishonor his son’s memory. Julie Jacobson had considered this question as well in her journal: “Then you think about the relatives and friends of Bernard. Would you, as a parent, want that image posted for all the world to see? Or even would you want to see how your son died? You’d probably want to remember him another way.”
Do you photograph a person who happened to be dying? Do you publish a picture of impending death, a violent death? How do you balance news with propriety? These questions belong to the most profound dilemmas photojournalists and photo editors can find themselves in. In 1961, Yasushi Nagao’s World Press Photo of the Year, showing a Japanese politician being assassinated, provoked a fierce discussion whether the photographer had violated the privacy of a dying person. The crux of it lay in the public nature of the event: the politician’s death was not a private affair and it had been Nagao’s task as a press photographer to document it.
Nagao never doubted his journalistic instinct nor did Julie Jacobson nearly 50 years later. “Shooting the image was not a question,” she wrote in her journal, “Death is a part of life and most certainly a part of war.” There are many examples in the World Press Photo collection and they can be found in all categories, from an exploding race car, a failed military training session, to a public lynching as witnessed by Horst Faas and Michel Laurent in Bangladesh (1971), Carol Halebian and Leslie Stone in Haiti (1987 and 1991), James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer in Indonesia (1998 and 1999), and Tyler Hicks in Afghanistan (2001), among others.
But a sense of necessity and duty does not protect the photographer from shock and distress. When Paul Vathis witnessed the public suicide of American politician Budd Dwyer during a press conference in 1987, he accounted one day later: “I kept shooting my pictures during the whole sequence. I was shocked, personally shocked. From professional experience, I just kept taking pictures. After the bullet went in, it was a gory scene. I’m still stunned. I’ve known him since he was a young state senator.” Paul Watson, who made the well-known photos of the desecration of a dead U.S. Marine in Mogadishu in 2003, is still haunted by what he saw.
In 1985, Frank Fournier’s image of 12-year-old Omayra Sanchez dying while being trapped in debris from a volcanic eruption, were published worldwide. Many people were shocked that her death could be recorded, but that no one had been able to rescue her. Fournier was repeatedly asked why he had not helped her, but with a team of rescue workers at the scene, he believed his duty laid elsewhere: “I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl and hope that it would mobilise people to help the ones that had been rescued and had been saved,” Fournier told the BBC later.
Julie Jacobson’s first instinct had also been to assist, but seeing two fellow marines at Bernard’s side she decided that she was not needed. Nick Ut’s picture of Kim Phuc fleeing her napalm bombed Vietnam village is one of the most famous photos ever made. Less known are the pictures in which you see journalists tending to her wounds immediately afterwards, and the fact that it was Ut who rushed her to hospital. In 1998, James Nachtwey tried to intervene on behalf of the man about to be lynched by an angry mob in Jakarta, but while he pleaded the mob turned on him.
Making a photo is one thing, distributing and publishing it quite another. Stanley Forman’s 1975 sequence of a woman falling to her death from a fire escape refueled the discussion of whether it is morally justified to publish pictures of people who are about to die, and whether such images do not violate the privacy of the victims and their relatives. In brief: What is to be gained by their publication? In Forman’s case, the answers seemed to be clear as his sequence led to the creation of new safety regulations in the United States.
But these questions are not always easy to answer. Just as AP felt obliged to release Jacobson’s photo with a statement, The Washington Post explained the decision in 1971 to publish pictures of suspected Bangladeshi collaborators being killed on its front page: “We do it in full awareness that these photographs […] are extremely strong stuff and that some of you will believe them to be over-sensational, tasteless and unfit to be printed anywhere. […] The essential reason, of course, is that the depicted events constitute an undeniable and significant reality.”
In 1991, readers of The Observer were outraged when the British newspaper published Kenneth Jarecke’s photo of an incinerated Iraqi soldier at full-page width. Even professionals were shocked, and hardly any other newspaper ran the picture. However, The Observer believed that the image could contribute to a public debate about the nature and consequences of the ongoing Gulf War. In Jarecke’s words: “Is this something we want to be involved in?” and “How can you decide to have a war if you are not fully informed?” In the United States, the picture was unseen at the time, as AP took it off the wire, deeming it too sensitive and too graphic, even for editors.
Similarly, the photos of people jumping from the World Trade Center immediately after the 9/11 attacks could not be published in the United States for a long time. They were considered so traumatic that not only the pictures but also the people themselves ceased to exist, even in official records: despite visual and forensic evidence no one had jumped from the towers, people had either fallen or been forced out by heat.
In his book Pictures on a Page (1978), Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times and chairman of the World Press Photo in 1981, offered four questions that could help to decide in case of offensive photographs: is the event of such social or historic significance that the shock is justified? Is the objectionable detail necessary for a proper understanding? Does the subject freely consent? And does the photo express humanity? Not all of them needed an affirmative answer to justify publication, but at least one.
In 2009, Julie Jacobson wrote in her journal about her photo of Corporal Bernard: “With great respect and understanding to all the opposing arguments to publication, I feel that as journalists it is our social responsibility to record and publish such images. We have no restrictions to shoot or publish casualties from opposition forces, or even civilian casualties. Are those people less human than American or other NATO soldiers?”