In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, which as of this writing killed three innocents and wounded nearly two hundred, photos of the aftermath naturally began appearing in the media, a few of which were shockingly graphic. One in particular showed three people hurrying an ashen young man away from the scene in a wheelchair. His legs below the knees are nothing more than stripped bloody bone, tendon and a hanging sheet of skin.
The New York Observer noted that some media outlets cropped the photo to spare readers the grisly sight; but a few, The Atlantic among them, posted the image uncensored, sparking a debate about the journalist ethics and standards of confronting viewers with such disturbing material. “We agree that this image is difficult to look at but believe that it is also a true depiction of the terrible nature of this story,” said Atlantic communications director Natalie Raabe. “We were careful to prepare viewers for the graphic content, including a warning that entirely obscures the photo.”
The Observer went on to point out that the Daily News blurred the man’s injuries (The Atlantic blurred his face “out of respect for his privacy”) and The New York Times declined to use the photo at all. Standards editor Phil Corbett said, “We clearly would consider the full frame of that photo to be too graphic to publish.” New York Times senior photographer James Estrin said, “I’m not opposed to showing blood and, on rare occasions, a dismemberment, if it’s integral to telling a story.” But of the photograph in question, he said, “I’m not sure the graphicness advances the story.”
And then there is the rather stunning instance of journalistic dishonesty Tuesday by the New York Daily Post, which apparently tried to straddle that ethical line by Photoshopping clothing over the mangled leg of a wounded woman at the Boston bombing, to sanitize the photo of gore (that altered pic appears to be gone from their site now).
Graphic photos don’t merely shock and disgust; they can also enlighten (or manipulate) us and powerfully sway our perspective of an issue. The famous 1972 photo of a naked and burned young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalmed village greatly influenced the attitude of many Americans at home about the war. Images of Holocaust victims that began leaking out to the world after World War II bore terrible witness to a degree of “man’s inhumanity to man” that would not have been believed without that photographic evidence.
Even the gruesome Boston photo wasn’t all about anguish and gore; the image also crystallized the heroism and humanity exhibited that day: the cowboy-hatted Good Samaritan running alongside the wheelchair and pinching the man’s exposed artery closed, while a police officer and marathon volunteer helped hurry the victim to safety.
Access to graphic photos, online or otherwise, should be restricted to adults who choose to see them (as opposed to children who might happen upon them). For those who do choose, such images have the power to bring into clarity aspects of life that we may not want to think about – its unpredictable violence, for example, and our ever-present mortality. But we do ourselves and our fellow human beings a disservice if we avert our gaze. As blogger Lee Stranahan wrote about the Boston pictures,
Do not stop yourself from seeing what actually happened yesterday in the United States and to the United States. Look and let yourself feel. The sickening aversion is your humanity. The sadness is your love. The anger is your sense of justice.
One picture is worth a thousand words, goes the familiar phrase. And a shocking picture that puts us in touch with our shared humanity is worth the discomfort.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/18/13)