Black bodies, moral choices & the editorial process.

You may (or may not) have seen the images in the New York Times this week of the intercepted migrant boat off the Libyan coast. If you did, like me, you may have been shocked, not only by the continually unfolding tragedy, but perhaps more so by the stark portrayal of the unnamed individuals lying dead. Not simply dead, but sprawling in undignified abandonment.




These images and their use, made me extremely uncomfortable. Siddhartha Mitter, writing in Quartz Africa puts a finger on the reasons why, and in doing so touches on an issue raised on duckrabbit before – the role of the editors in deciding what images are seen, and in what context. Mitter takes this a step further, and so doing gives us all something to think about:




Thanks to @johnedwinmason for the link to @siddhmi ‘s piece.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Simon Foster says:

    Thank you. This has made me think a lot. I always assumed that editorial decisions like this were rooted in a pastoral concern for readers – so that if a family member or friend was likely to see the picture of a deceased loved one in such a way as would add to their distress, then that picture should be restrained, whatever the benefit to public attention might be. In a US paper that would presumably mean not printing pictures of US residents or citizens. In this international age that may be what needs rethinking in the ‘newsroom and editorial meetings’, for Mitter’s piece flies under a banner of ’empathy’, and calling editors’ attention to that empathy could indeed be well worth doing.

    By the way, I’m not sure ‘abandonment’ is at all the right word. These dead people have died because of overcrowding but they have not been thrown overboard by those who might think their vessel more seaworthy or survivable without the extra weight. Instead they are cradled at the centre of a circle of the living, several of whom are looking directly and, it seems, concernedly at them.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for the comments Simon. Its often the case that ‘editors’ are overlooked in the process, with photographers receiving the criticism when there is actually a layer in between source/print where big decisions are taken about what we see. Its often too easy to criticise a photographer who has little real control of the process of use, and editors do know that.

      I take your point about the use of ‘abandonment’ with regard to the image at top. In my ‘defence’ I didn’t see that image in the first instance – it wasn’t used in the original NYT online piece I looked at – where the images showing the deceased also have fewer survivors evident. These images made an impression, hence this piece, and the use of ‘abandonment’. But yes, the image at top from the front cover does convey a sense of fellow-feeling for those departed.

      And as I write this I’m acutely aware that we’re sitting here, comfortably, discussing the aesthetics of death. The world is mightily screwed up just now.

  2. Kim Court says:

    “Not simply dead, but sprawling in undignified abandonment…” Powerful sentence. This whole story about the migrant boat and refugees is sometimes too much to process. The use of some images seems to be exploitive and dismissive of the humanity of it all. Sensationalism. Sell more papers. But then there are other images – like the image of the deceased little Syrian boy who washed ashore … or the one of the young child covered in dirt and blood, crying – that tell more than any words ever could. When I saw that little boy’s lifeless body, I broke open. All I could think was how frightened he must have been to be so alone and so helpless in the last moments of his life.
    Imagine how much more compassionate the world would be if we saw and internalized images as photographers do, rather than the images that are crafted to fit a specific narrative or editorial slant.

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