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Images Of The Dead And The Change They Provoke


Disturbing images of the dead and dying have long been used to provoke change. When Emmett Till's mother released a photograph of her son after his lynching, it haunted thousands of people who saw it, and it also galvanized the civil rights movement. Similarly, photos of atrocities in Vietnam, for example, brought home the gruesome realities of that war. And now, Michael Morris urging the release of Newtown crime photos, hoping that forcing the public to confront images of that mass shooting might lead to stronger gun control. But no matter what the situation is, the decision to release photos of the dead is always a complicated one because while those images can inspire change for the good, there's also fear that they can re-traumatize the survivors, or even numb viewers to truly horrifying events.

We want to hear from those of you who've perhaps made this decision about the photo of a loved one. Tell us your story. Our phone number is 1-800-989-8255; the email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But joining us right now is Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Bruce joins us from a studio there. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION, Bruce.

BRUCE SHAPIRO: Very glad to be here.

HEADLEE: This debate goes back at almost to the beginnings of photography, right? I mean, you even - back in the Civil War, with the work of Matthew Brady and others, we have wondered what affect seeing these kind of things has on people. So what do we know about that? When people see images of those who died violently, do we know what affect that has?

SHAPIRO: Well, look, we know that some people get upset; we know that some people get angered. We suspect that some people may be made numb. Interestingly, there's kind of a real paucity of serious scientific data. I mean, we know that when any of us look at images of horror, our brains, our bodies react. We may feel disgust, we may feel fear, we may want to look away. If it's a forensic photo, and our job as a police officer, a juror, a journalist, is to find evidence, then we've got one set of responses, we're looking for data. If we're just a consumer and open up the newspaper, flip on the web, turn on TV, now - it may be something else altogether. I think the scientific question of how people respond, but then there is the historic question of how people respond, what you refer to at the top of the segment.

The classic example is Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett till who did insist in 1954 that her son's mangled body be displayed in its coffin and photographed with all of the physical evidence of lynching for it should be visible.

HEADLEE: Right, she made sure they didn't fix him or make him look better.

SHAPIRO: Right. that's right. Very much as one of the parents in Newtown a few weeks ago insisted that Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy look at her son's body for the same purpose, to shock, to move. And in the case of Emmett Till, that image did have an enormous impact than there's a lot of, you know, testimony from the early years of the civil rights movement about the power of that image to shock. That said, that was not a forensic photo. I mean, when Michael Moore's calling for the release of the crime scene photos in Newtown, he's calling for the release of images that were taken for purposes of evidence without craft, without artistry, for the purposes of investigators in court. That's very different, I think, from what we saw with Emmett Till, which had its power in part because his body was otherwise presented in a normally very dignified situation of being in a coffin and prepared for burial.

So there was a kind of a jolt. I can't think of a lot of examples of forensic photos that shocked a country into change, though you could argue probably that images from concentration camps in World War II, from Buchenwald certainly had an enduring impact.

HEADLEE: What about Vietnam? Yeah.

SHAPIRO: As did the photographs in 1969, 1970 that were published in Life magazine from My Lai.

HEADLEE: Yeah, the massacre there. You say there's not much information - scientific information on the effect it has on, say, a public. But what about on survivors? If they decide to share a photo or if they see a photo that they didn't expect to of their loved one having died violently, do we have also a lack of information on the effect that has?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think that psychologists would say that there are sort of - let's say parents of a child who's been murdered, loved ones of someone who has suffered terribly, there are probably two different vectors that are going to determine the response. One is that this image, especially that's encountered in an unexpected way or an unintended way, is going to bring back - is going to evoke intrusive memories, is going to be a very powerful, emotional, overwhelming kind of memory.

And we - look, we saw that last week in Steubenville, Ohio when a - the victim in that case was shown images of herself in the midst of this sexual assault in which two young men were ultimately convicted, and she was shocked and shaken. And that's going to be a profoundly disturbing image. So some of the 9/11 families, for example, objected to the re-publication or rebroadcast of images of falling bodies on the anniversaries of 9/11 because they said that's a picture of the murder of our loved ones, and I don't want to see that.

HEADLEE: It almost feels different if it's somebody who's dying as opposed to someone who has died.

SHAPIRO: Right. So that's sort of one vector.

HEADLEE: Let me...

SHAPIRO: The other side, though, I think - and this is important - is the family itself deciding. Now, (unintelligible) made a conscious decision, and she set herself on a mission and felt that she wanted others to see what she was seeing as part of that mission. Similarly, Veronique Pozner, one of the Newtown parents, she was the first who brought Governor Malloy in.

HEADLEE: Of Noah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: She has talked about her reasons for doing that. When a parent has or a loved one has control over the release of the image and when it's part of what you might call a survivor mission, then I think it probably has a different impact. That's what psychologists would tell us.

HEADLEE: I would imagine. Let's take a phone call here. This is Jill in Evanston, Wyoming. Jill, have you ever had to make this kind of difficult decision?

JILL: I guess it's something that I am dealing with currently. My brother killed himself four years ago by hanging and his request had been that he wanted to be cremated rather than embalmed. And so they disallowed our family from viewing his body because of the health code reasons. And at the time it was really unsettling to me that we could not have that sort of closure and deal with his death in that way. And it's been something that I've wanted to contact the sheriff and police department.

Because it was a suicide, they had a crime investigation open, and so I'm assuming that there were photographs taken. And it's something that I want to see, the photographs, on one hand. But on the other, I'm really terrified that it will be haunting...

HEADLEE: I'm sure.

JILL: ...and be something that I just don't - or can't deal with emotionally.

HEADLEE: I can imagine. And you probably are afraid to have that as your last image of him. Thank you very much. That's Jill calling from Evanston, Wyoming. Let's bring another voice into this conversation. Fred Ritchin is a professor of photography and imaging at New York University, director of PixelPress, and he was the picture editor for The New York Times Magazine for a long time. He joins us by phone from Paris. Welcome, Fred.

FRED RITCHIN: Thank you. Hi.

HEADLEE: She's talking about a personal decision to see a photo, but it's a completely different issue when we're talking about it as a part of journalism. I saw that, you know, The Washington Post, I believe it was, described young Noah, Veronique Pozner's son, and a lot of readers wrote in and said we don't want to read that description. Why would you put even that description in the paper? What are the complications for journalists?

RITCHIN: You know, I think there's another issue, which is that of what kind of social impact do you want to have with the image too. It's one thing, you know, to be concerned about the privacy of the individual family. And then for journalists you have to ask the issue, what do I gain by invading their privacy? What do I gain by showing the world? And so the case, for example, in 1972 of the girl who is napalmed in Vietnam, she was nude, the initial decision was not to release the photograph because there's a little girl nude and we didn't want - they didn't want to do it.

But then they felt there was an overriding need for society to understand what was going on in the Vietnam War. The girl was traumatized by the image. It was difficult for her. She looked ugly. And it took her a long time to recover. But in a case like that you can say there's really some reason society needs to see it.

Otherwise for me there's no reason at all to ever publish or to ever invade privacy of anybody because what would you do if nothing good comes out of it. It just is painful. And it's not just the parents, it's the siblings as well. If there's a six-year-old child murdered and then the eight-year-old brother or sister sees the image, it's - they're not able to cope with that at that age, so I don't really understand why people want to release these images at this point. I don't know what's to be gained by it in terms of social impact.

HEADLEE: Well, and I would imagine it's an even more complicated question today, Fred, because I mean we talked about Emmitt Till and Vietnam and historical images, but with digital photography and social media (unintelligible) people can alter these. The photo can end up splashed all over the place within seconds. Does that make this an even - I mean does that raise the bar even higher?

RITCHIN: Much more. When Osama bin Laden was killed, the decision by the White House was not to release the photographs of the dead body, in part not to inflame parts of the world that could be inflamed, but second of all because the feeling was that a lot of people would disbelieve the photography anyway, that it could be doctored.

You know, photos can end up on pornographic sites. They could end up anywhere. You don't have control over them once they're online. And everybody seems to be a publisher these days, everybody has an opinion, so you could find the same images of the children in Newtown on sites or people - proponents of more guns, you know, saying imagine if we had guns, this never would have happened. You could find it anywhere.

And I think you get traumatized and retraumatized. In the days of Emmitt Till or Vietnam, they would appear in select publications or one publication but not everybody could grab it, republish it, changed it, just as you say, doctor it and do whatever they want. So I think we have to be even more careful today in terms of what we release and what we don't release.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Well, then let me bring this back to you, Bruce Shapiro. You just heard the voice of Fred Ritchin, who is a professor of photography and imaging at New York University. Also with us, Bruce Shapiro with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Is there still a place then for these images? Can there still be a social good by publishing these kind of photos?

SHAPIRO: Well, first of all, there is no such thing as these kind of photos. Every situation is going to be different, and every image is going to be different. And I think in fairness to Michael Moore, what he is arguing is that this country has a fantasy image of what it is did to these young bodies, it would alter the debate, it would make it much harder for the gun lobby to pedal a kind of video game versions, a sterilized, sanitized version of what it is that guns do to people. I'm not sure he's right or wrong, but I think that's what he's arguing.

I do think despite the saturation of images, the rise of citizen video, I do have enough faith, first of all, in photography to think that it can still shock and move and impel change. And I think that's because images of horror coming at the right time - and we never know what the right time is, coming in the right way, and it's hard to know what the craft choices are always going to be - take advantage of an argument that we all have within ourselves. We are both attracted by violence and repelled by violence.

If a photo is too explicit, most of us are going to look away. It's not going to have a political effect. If a photo is too sanitized, we're not going to get the information we need. Fred mentioned the picture of Kim Phuc in Vietnam...

HEADLEE: You know what? Just one second, Bruce, because what's you're talking about is exactly what one of our callers wants to talk about. Katherine is actually calling from Newtown, Connecticut. And Katherine, this must be a subject of debate in your own community.

KATHERINE: Yes, it is. Well, it sort of is. I saw - hello?

HEADLEE: Yes, go ahead.

KATHERINE: OK. I saw Michael Moore's letter on Monday, and I was really saddened by the idea. I know that I personally am not interested in seeing photos of the children who are murdered in Newtown. They were my daughter's friends, they were her soccer teammates, they were her classmates from dancing school, and I would never look at those photos because I definitely feel like I have enough of an image in my head to be totally shocked by the idea that 26 people could be killed in under four minutes. The carnage that that speed must create is just unbelievable to me.

HEADLEE: And I imagine you'd be worry about whether or not your daughter saw those pictures.

KATHERINE: Absolutely. My daughter looking at the 26 faces of her six-year-old peers in Newtown is something that is still shocking to her today. She still says to me, Mommy, I can't believe all those children died. That was a lot of children.

HEADLEE: Yeah. We have the same reaction, Katherine, still today. Thank you very much. Katherine is calling from Newtown, Connecticut. And we've been speaking with Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. He joined us today from a studio at Columbia. Fred Ritchin is professor of photography and imaging at New York University, author of the forthcoming book "Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary and the Citizen." He was with us today from Paris. Thanks to both of you.

RITCHIN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a look at Gulf War illness and what scientists are learning about its possible causes and its treatments. That's tomorrow. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.