Capturing Death

February 18, 2010 

A few controversies have popped up amidst the round-the-clock coverage of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti and its horrifying aftermath. Ranging from local bickering to national disgust and international mixed messages, these types of arguments, gaffes and head-turning pronouncements are unavoidable whenever news of this magnitude arises. Equally unavoidable are the photo-related controversies that rile up shutter bugs and photojournalists, but seldom garner much attention outside the journalism world.

Two photo workshops set to be held in Haiti angered many in the photoj community. The first, a $1,500 course offered by Andy Levin of 100Eyes, was actually announced before the earthquake struck, but Levin decided to proceed with the workshop. Benjamin Chesterton blasted the idea on his duckrabbit blog and posted a follow-up response from Levin.

Then, Zoriah Miller decided to offer his own $4,000 workshop in mid-March to focus on the aftermath. His decision and subsequent responses prompted vicious derision that took a Net-worthy turn toward personal attacks on his shooting style and mocking questions about his inclusion on a list of the top 10 photojournalists of all time.

Wired.com's RAW File did a better job of summing up the controversy than I can, but if you can't be bothered to follow these links and wade through the endless miasma of the time-suck known as online message boards, the basic gist is that critics feel these two very accomplished photographers are trying to profit from the tragedy and that their workshop students will not only use up valuable resources in the ravaged country, but may not have the skills to approach this delicate situation like a pro. Chesterton also brought up the issue of the psychological toll that working in these types of situations can have on photographers, and felt that Levin had not addressed that thoroughly enough in his workshop announcement.

The two stand firm by their decisions, and though Miller's responses come with a bit more arrogance, I'm inclined to believe their good intentions of helping shape more educated photographers. However, the whole idea of offering workshops like these leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Judging by the reactions of the photojournalist community and my own feelings on the subject, emerging professionals aren’t likely to apply to these workshops. Many of the supportive comments reciprocate the wild personal attacks and seem to come from fan boys or girls, as commenter Betheny wrote on Miller’s original post:

I think you are a model human Zoriah, a one of a kind. Nobody else puts themselves in the face of the truth like you do. You are the only TRUE photojournalist the world has. Thank you for risking your identity for the sake of truth, change, and graciousness. You are a the BEST there is. All these negative comments above, and I'm sure below after mine, come from ignorant uneducated people. Keep following your heart, it will always bring you joy. Your heart is the only voice you need to be listening to.

Nearly lost in all the hyperbole are some interesting issues, however, as both Levin and Miller assert that their main goal is to help train compassionate and independent journalists to tell the important stories mainstream media leaves untold. "I also believe that there are great stories around the edges of 'ground zero' in Port au Prince that are not being covered and part of the workshop will be training emerging and even professional photographers in how to do stories that go beyond the pile of bodies, that we all feel is an affront to the dignity of the victims," wrote Levin in his response on duckrabbit.

Outside the workshop realm was another interesting discussion on NYTimes.com’s Lens Blog Too Many Angles on Suffering?, which includes perspectives from photojournalists who were there and one who decided not to go. The accompanying photos that depict numerous photographers all covering the same scene do seem to support Levin's point, and though there is a great need to document events this profound, after a certain point, we approach visual overload. Even the fantastic work by Los Angeles Times photographers Carolyn Cole, Rick Loomis and Brian Vander Brug and shooters from various wire services showcased on Boston.com’s The Big Picture start to blur together and lose a bit of their emotional impact.

This effect is even more pronounced on The Washington Post’s very poorly edited and hard-to-navigate collection of 281 photos. The Post also caught flak for running graphic photos of the tragedy on its front page. Ombudsman Andrew Alexander addressed the controversy in a Sunday column and on his phonetically displeasing Omblog.

The latter addresses the question of whether the Post would have run similar photos of rich white victims, arguing that the graphic visuals dehumanized the victims depicted in them and that race and the Haitian people’s socioeconomic condition was a factor in their coverage. He also points out that proximity plays into photo decisions as a response to critics who contend that if running provocative photos is simply a representation of reality, then why don’t we see photos of dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq? "Newspapers typically are reluctant to run death images from their circulation area because of the likelihood that readers may be connected to the deceased," he wrote in the Omblog.

Regardless of the motivations behind running the front page photo of a man crawling out of the rubble next to a crushed girl, the uproar and arguments are far from new. Any time something like this happens, there are the same angry readers who feel the newspaper is sensationalizing death and others who applaud the gritty reality depicted in those photos. Clearly, these types of images fail the Cheerio’s test, and barring a widespread editorial shift toward the splashy, violent front pages of tabloids widely available in many other countries, I don't see an end to these photo controversies anytime soon.

The limitless online news hole might be the answer to this chronic issue, however. Conner Jay, a college classmate from the University of Oregon who now works for the Salinas Californian recently covered the latest in a series of gang-related murders in Monterey County. He wrote about the experience on his blog, which includes an audio slideshow of photos from the scene. The newspaper did not run the graphic image of a dead body in the street in print, but the photo is featured in the slideshow. Despite a couple complaints in the comments section, the slideshow has received 69 recommendations as of Thursday evening — much higher than the other articles featured in the "Most Recommended" section that have four to eight.

He wrote me via email:

Online is a private experience, you choose what you to click on, and thus what you see. Your curiosity leads your threads. Print exists in a public sphere, where any kid walking by a newsstand can see the content. We wanted to show the gravity of this event, but we didn't want to offend the unsuspecting viewer. So many in the community witnessed this event, but it can be a very disturbing experience to the those that have no connection to such violence. That is why I chose to run a "warning" slide to advise any viewer of the graphic content in the slideshow.

Perhaps this is one of the strongest features of online content. Multimedia and instant news still haven’t been monetized successfully, but having a forum for the unsettling photos people should see from time to time is priceless. While I’m a strong believer in the power of provocative imagery to spark action, force feeding it to unsuspecting readers can backfire and further erode the trust we need in order to be that catalyst of change.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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