We live in a media-driven world where photography is one of the dominating vehicles for communication and education, and some critics call for censoring harsh images. In this essay I will argue that documentary and journalistic photography shouldn’t be censored. Although it sometimes can have negative consequences, its benefits are too widespread and important. I will look at photography’s role in 20th and 21st century society, its impact on people, and the argument that some images are too shocking and confronting to be shown. The controversial debate about censoring photography continues to be open and some photographs still shock and cause uproar for their honesty and graphic nature. But the purpose of photojournalism is not to shock; it is to show.
Jodi Cobb (2004, 247-48), a photographer for the National Geographic Society, believes that “The purpose of photojournalism is to shout, attract attention, shine light on an injustice, or reveal a hidden truth.” Without this medium of visual communication and stimulation, many of the world’s problems and truths would remain hidden behind government’s tinted windows, geographical and cultural barriers. Photojournalism confronts us with human suffering, the truth of war and the consequences of our actions, and it does not apologise for being honest and transparent. Though according to Suzanna Clarke (2000), a photograph is “necessarily out of context,” the truths and messages that photojournalism brings to people’s lives every day are clear and cannot be ignored. People don’t forget images as easily as a voice on the radio; people don’t react with as much passion to a newspaper article as they do to the photograph that accompanies it. Without this kind of medium, we would be in the dark about many issues.
Sometimes these issues are confronting and hard to acknowledge, but they need to be looked at and resolved. Publishing a photograph in today’s global media can give an unknown problem the international exposure it needs. When referring to a Pulitzer-price winning photograph by the late Kevin Carter depicting a starving child in Sudan in 1993 with a vulture behind her, Clarke (2000) writes: “This picture became the most significant image of the Sudanese famine in the early 1900s… Prodding the conscience of those suffering compassion fatigue, it helped increase contributions to the aid organisations operating in Sudan.” Many images, such as this one, have had a positive impact on viewers, on those people who do not witness these events personally, and yet are transported there in mind and emotion through a single image. Sadly, this particular image had a negative impact on Carter, who committed suicide in 1993, being overwhelmed by the criticisms he received over his photograph: why did he not help the child, rather than take the photograph and leave? Within this context of human suffering, war and other political environments, photojournalism is sometimes said to cross the boundaries between politics and freedom of the press, and even worse, it is said to numb the audience into not caring. Although becoming numb to seeing repeated images of suffering is a reality, it does not mean that photographs depicting tragedies should stop being published; without them, no-one would be aware of the problems that exist except for those who are living them, and their historical value would be forever lost. When analysing the influence of photojournalism on the past, author Lucy Dalglish (2004, 4) writes: “…images of war dead became numbingly routine in Vietnam and throughout the 1980s.” But she concludes that without these photographs, the memory of the tragedy of the Vietnam war could be lost.
Photojournalism seeks to tell the truth. It is nonetheless photography and aestheticising an image is still part of a photographer’s aim when documenting a scene or event. Some critics, such as Ingrid Sischy (cited in Strauss 2003, 5) argue that “To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” But many photojournalists, writers, and critics ask, why not? Why can’t an image be both beautiful and heart-breaking at the same time? Strauss (2003, 9) argues that, “To represent is to aestheticize; that is, to transform.” A shocking image must have some sort of aesthetic value, otherwise, the viewer will truly not be able to look at it, making the image lose its power of narration and persuasion. In 2004, Tami Silicio, a photographer for The Seattle Times in the United States,published a photograph of the war in Iraq that lost her her job for its direct message of loss: It shows a dozen flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers being shipped home from an airport in Kuwait. It created controversy, especially when Silicio lost her job for a photo that, according to Dalglish (2004, 4) “simply shows the truth.”
Photojournalism has a deeper value than its role in the media: it educates, commemorates and is an invaluable source as a historical record. There are iconic images that remind us of the past and help us remember we don’t want certain things to come to pass again. They are powerful images, depicting genocide and massacres around the world, wars, famines, diseases and natural disasters. The fact that these images survive after the event has passed show their importance in our history and our future. But they also record happy times and milestones overcome, giving hope and strength to continue.
If this medium is censored or taken away, moments of extreme value and importance pertinent to the human condition will pass without recognition. Ignorance will grow, history will disappear and apathy will disperse.
Clarke, Suzanna. 2000. A Price to be Paid. The Courier Mail. 16 September.
Dalglish, Lucy. 2004. Censoring the Truth About War. News Media and the Law, 28, 3: 4.
Levi Strauss, David. 2003. Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. The Boundary Between Aesthetics and Politics, 3-11. Singapore: Tien Wha Press.
National Geographic Society. 2004. In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits. Jodi Cobb, 246-251. Washington, D.C. : National Geographic Society Press.
National Geographic Society. 2004. In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits. Chris Johns, 24-25. Washington, D.C. : National Geographic Society Press.
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