The Limits of Photojournalism

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. Today we see images of war. We see images of the past. Images of joy. Images of sadness. We also see images of death, yet still cringe every time and think “why?”, or “what happened?” There are many disturbing images circulating from World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and many others. Photojournalism has grown since the invention of photography. We see paintings of Revolutionary War battles and people, but by the Civil War, we saw photographs of the people. They may not have been action shots- or in color- but we saw them. We know exactly what Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln looked like. Today we can understand the horrors of war, because we see them. Television also helps with this. Vietnam was the first war to be televised, and it’s only grown since.

However, there is an essential question: Is this right? People die in war everyday, and is it right to publish a photograph of them fighting in action? What if it was one taken right before their death? A similar situation took place in Boston, Massachusetts during the early 1970s. Stanley Forman was a photographer for the Boston Herald, and he snapped a series of three sensational shots of a failed fire rescue in a span of one second. Diana Bryant was the woman in these pictures who tugged at America’s hearts. The first photo shows a fireman reaching for a ladder, and it looks like Diana and the child she was holding were going to make it. The second photo shows the fire escape falling off the building. Although Diana was holding onto the fireman’s legs while he was grasping the ladder, the third photo shows her and the child free falling. There is no fourth photo. “I realized what was going on and I completely turned around, because I didn’t want to see her hit” (727-728). Diana Bryant died because of the fall, but the child survived, as he landed on her body. Not only were these photographs published in the Herald, but in many other papers as well. Honorable newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. After they were printed, many readers criticized the papers and the papers they were written in. Many believed it was insensitive and abominable to print these photos as they were taken so close to Diana’s death. I disagree.

Today we have television shows centering around crime and hospitals. We see many grotesque, realistic images of drama, and want more. However, an uprising would occur were these images actuality. Why is that? We see images of war and the Holocaust, yet they’re fine. Most likely it’s because everyone’s in uniform agreement of it being for an honorable cause (war), or it was all one awful person’s fault (Hitler of the Holocaust). It doesn’t make sense. The Boston photographs were photojournalism that reported an incident, and raised awareness of how unsafe fire escapes are. There’s a cliché, “no news is good news”, but it has to be that way. Optimistic stories are mixed into the news, but negative news sells papers and holds a viewer’s attention. It may not be morally correct, but we all learn from this negative news. It’s the same when making a mistake. Because of these photographs, people understand something has to change. Diana shouldn’t have died because of a failure of the fire escape. The 1,517 people lost on the RMS Titanic should have led longer lives. Back in 1912, though, the White Star line and many critics believed the newest ship, Titanic was invincible, so there the ship lacked the number of life boats it should have had. The reasoning was that the life boats would crowd the decks. However, the world learned a lesson when the “unsinkable” sank, and many died due to the absence of life boats and several other origins. After that disaster, there are now stricter rules for safety, and they reflect on automobiles, ships, airplanes, etc.

We learn from mistakes. We learn from news. Thus, I believe these photographs were justified in being printed. Society can’t change what happened, no matter how many letters they send to an editor. However, we can set something right by learning, and preventing the same situation from happening again. It is true that the news shouldn’t promote yellow journalism, or promote a tragic article to milk society for profit. Former managing editor of the Washington Star during the Boston photograph controversy, Charles Seib, proclaims the situation in the most proficient way:

“Any editor who decided to print these pictures without giving at least a moment’s thought to what purpose they served and that their effect was likely to be on the reader should ask another question: Have I become so preoccupied with manufacturing a product according to professional traditions and standards that I have forgotten about the consumer, the reader” (732).

Every news editor should determine the purpose of an article. It’s common sense. However, they should also decide whether or not the article is appropriate for printing by reflecting on how the readers will react. This should be practiced everywhere. That is my opinion of good journalism.

Ephron, Nora. "The Boston Photographs." 1975. Ed. Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brereton.The Norton Reader: an Anthology of Nonfiction. 12th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 727-33. Print.
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