Looking death in the eye

Which photos are suitable for publication? And which aren't?

When the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid on a complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by a crack team of US Navy Seals, there seemed to be two main questions: one, how on earth had the Pakistani authorities not noticed his presence; and two, when would the White House release photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death?

I’m not going to speculate on the issue of the Pakistani intelligence service. This is a photography news site, after all. (Although it is always worth remembering that one of safest places to hide anything is in plain sight.) But I followed with interest the unfolding saga of the images, from the fakes to those of other people killed in the raid. Initially, my opinions were on the ambivalent side of ‘they probably shouldn’t release a photo of his body’. But they gradually began to solidify into a more definite, ‘no, they really shouldn’t’.

I recalled the furore, and indeed my own sense of disgust, when images of Saddam Hussein’s sons’ battered faces were splashed across newspapers in July 2003. The release of those photographs was intended to reassure those who were nervous or to prove to those who were sceptical that they really had been taken out. But those images either didn’t or didn’t need to prove anything. People who were fearful would not feel safe until they actually were safe; people who were sceptical would remain so, picture or not.

Now, as then, the rhetoric remains the same. A photograph of bin Laden’s body will not satisfy anyone who doubts that he really is gone; there is enough distrust in the motives and the modus operandi of the White House administration to render a photograph very flimsy evidence indeed. For anyone who does believe that he’s gone, a picture is hardly a necessity. But the significance of whether bin Laden is gone or not doesn’t rest in a photograph; it’s in the consequences of the operation, and how people react to it.

The more that I thought about it, the more that I could only see an image of bin Laden’s body becoming a grotesque and vaunted hunting trophy. This is not what evidence is supposed to be and the degradation of another human being to that extent seeks only to brutalise us as people; it takes us a long way from justice.

No, that image was best kept under wraps.

Then something happened yesterday that made me see things from a different, and more intense, perspective. Wouter Weylandt, a Belgian professional cyclist who rode for the Leopard-Trek team was killed on the descent of the Passo del Bocco in the Giro d’Italia. According to the reports, it was an horrific crash that shattered his skull even with the protection of a helmet. And out of respect for his loved ones, the specialist press and quite a few of the major news outlets aren’t carrying photos of the crash. Try Cycling News; try Cycling Weekly; try the BBC; try even Reuters. Yes, that very Reuters that bayed for pictures of bin Laden’s body and showed images of the other men shot in the Abbottabad compound.

From a news perspective, these are two very different scenarios. We are comparing the death of the man dubbed the world’s most wanted with that of a 26 year old sportsman. They are universes apart in terms of international impact. Yet they have their similarities, too.

Aren’t they both some mother’s son?

Dehumanising bin Laden might, somehow, enable us to rationalise his actions and his ideology, but he didn’t spring fully formed from the whirlwind of Eris. No, he was flesh, and blood, and bone, and he had a family. Regardless of how I view bin Laden and his contempt for human life and dignity, I’m struggling to justify treating his family any differently from that of Weylandt’s. He chose his career path, a high-risk one of brutality, destruction, and grief with the potential of a savage end; but his family did not. However you choose to interpret bin Laden’s death – a gross violation of political sovereignty and a political assassination, or a valiant act of redemption – his family does not deserve to suffer the indignity and humiliation of seeing their son’s, brother’s, or father’s bloodied and broken corpse spattered across every newspaper and screen on the globe.

Weylandt knew the risks of his profession; cycling, just like a lot of other sports, is a dangerous business. He met a tragic and untimely end doing what he loved and in the knowledge that it might just possibly turn out that way. Yet the press has thought better than to make his family deal with shocking and distressing images of the crash whilst they’re wading through torrents of catastrophic emotions.

The goalposts appear to be different here and I’m not sure if the choices of individuals can justify such disparate approaches when it concerns the treatment of their families. No one exists in isolation, and we, as photographers, should be aware of the bigger picture.

Very little in life, or in death, is governed by absolutes. To say that no images of death should ever be published would be a foolhardy statement; we would be setting ourselves up for a monumental fall there. But I am convinced that we should always default to a position of restraint and respect, if not for the subject of the image then at least for those with whom she or he shared a life. Humanity will thank us for it.