The ethics of death
My respect for Tim Hetherington, documentary photographer and film maker, and photojournalist Chris Hondros, who were killed in a mortar attack in Libya two days ago. Anyone committed, talented and determined enough to do the work that they did has my deepest admiration.
I didn’t know Tim Hetherington, I didn’t know him personally I mean. But I know his work, which I’ve been following for quite a while. And you get to know a photographer by looking at the images that they take. Hetherington’s images have been haunting me ever since I saw his contribution to Tales of a Globalising World in 2003. His 2007 World Press Photo award-winning image of an American soldier in Afghanistan brought a new dimension to photojournalism, fusing a poetic sense of aesthetics and humanity to the gruesome reality of war. In his latest book Infidel he continued with that exploration of the ‘war machine’ itself, focusing on the soldiers as people and bringing yet another fresh approach to documentary photography.
I wasn’t as familiar with the work of Chris Hondros but I was aware that it has seen the front pages of newspapers and magazines many times. His photograph of Joseph Duo, a Liberian government commander, was on many newspaper digital desktops worldwide within hours of it having been taken.
From the moment the news of the death of the two photographers reached the outside world the web has been inundated with notes of condolence and articles about their work and their untimely demise. One such article was published by the online version of The Daily Mail. And if you scroll down the page, past photographs taken by the two photographers, you will come to a rather graphic and disturbing image distributed by Reuters.
That image happens to show the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros as they are being attended by medical staff at the hospital in Misrata.
Predictably, that photograph has triggered some controversy. To be precise, the publishing of that image has created controversy. BJP magazine felt the need to remove the image from their website and put a placeholder and a link in its place due to the strong public reaction to it – scroll half-way down and you’ll see the link in bold. Olivier Laurent, News and Online Editor of BJP explains the reasons behind this decision here. Decency, decorum, ethics, aesthetics…so many considerations…it seems that the decision to publish an image like that is far from a simple affair.
But is it really?
What is the difference between showing Hondros bleeding to death on a hospital table and a graphic image of a Liberian child with a bloody, mangled hand? An image taken by Hondros, by the way – see it here; image no. 16 in the Liberia gallery; VERY GRAPHIC IMAGE. Is it the fact that we know the name of the people in the photograph, that is, Hondros and Hetherington, but we don’t know the name of the injured child? A person or an anonymous victim. That’s the difference a name makes I guess.
Why the uproar at the publishing of that image by the BJP and The Daily Mail?
Yes, I think that image distributed by Reuters should be published. I think that if one of Hetherington’s aims was to explore and subsequently make people see and understand the impact of war on ordinary civilians then neither he nor Hondros would have objected to that photograph of them lying dead on a table being published.
Ethics. Where do you draw the line? They either apply to us all exactly the same or they’re no more than double-standards.
Amendment: The original version of this post said ‘the BJP had to remove the image’ this was changed subsequently to read ‘the BJP felt the need to remove the image’