Ethical Implications of Graphic Photos: Boston Bombing

Assignment: There were many graphic photographs of the aftermath of the bombing. One showed a victim who had lost his leg in the blast. You can see his face. Explain the ethical implications of using graphic photos. 


Like most anything in life, I believe context plays a big role in how images, messaging, or media as a whole is received. In an effort to respect the individual who is shown in the photograph being discussed, I am choosing not to share the image on my blog. While he may not care, I’m unsure whether or not he does and I simply don’t feel the need to circulate it further. The image is graphic, and what is a sickeningly sad time for one man is also the time when other’s courageously stepped up to help.

Initially my eyes went to the gruesome image of the man’s missing leg. Before long my stomach began to twist as I tried to figure out what’s what in the image, which only made my stomach turn more. (As you may have guessed, I don’t do blood well.) I then changed my focus to the man and woman helping the injured man and their facial expressions. Without any text provided with the link (and even if there were text, it may not have answered these questions), I found myself wondering about the relationship between the man in the wheelchair to the man and woman behind him. Did he know them? Were they family members or friends? Were they complete strangers? Looking at their faces and sensing the compassion they had for the injured man, whether they knew him or not, the feelings of uneasiness dissipated and instead sadness overcame me, but so did joy — for the willingness of Americans (humans really) to come together in a difficult time

The point I am trying to prove (which is not nearly as eloquent written as professional journalists), is that the meaning of the image changes based on the context through which it’s absorbed. Is the image being published to portray the brutality of the attack or the hardship and  compassion of those affected? If an image of this nature is the be used, I most certainly feel as if the individual in the photograph must give approval, but also believe it to be an incredibly insensitive time to ask for such. What reporter is going to hang on to the image until a time when the news is no longer hot off the press.

Ethically, I believe it is incredibly inappropriate (and to some degree I thought illegal) to publish photographs of people without their consent. Whether or not it is “okay” or appropriate to do so, doesn’t address the fact that if consent is asked for it’s likely at an inappropriate time. More so than ethics, I think it comes down to morals and what journalist feel is right in their gut. I chose not to publish the picture…but I’m not a journalist.

While I think such images can be argued to portray a more realistic depiction of the event(s), which some may argue is what social media is all about (being “real”), but social media is also about being human. Just as the individuals aiding the man in the photograph showed compassion during a traumatic time, it’s the journalists choice to chose whether to exercise this same compassion. While I think there is a time and a place for “real” images and the context they are shared in is particularly important, I believe journalists overstep when they set their morals aside and forget that they themselves are human, as well as the individuals in the photos.

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6 thoughts on “Ethical Implications of Graphic Photos: Boston Bombing

  1. Kaitlin,

    You brought up the most important point in this assignment: to show the image or not. I did show the image but I was seriously conflicted about it. I think this simple choice in writing this assignment IS the struggle. What is the reasoning behind sharing or not sharing? For me, it was to show an example of what we’re dealing with. I have to admit that I saw the details of the image and chose not to look at it again. There should be consent for images like this. I have to wonder though, when someone participates in an event like the Boston Marathon, don’t they consent to being photographed within the registration? Does that even matter when we’re dealing with something of this magnitude? That may be a question for this particular tragedy given the nature of the event but not with others. I sincerely question my choice in showing the image, because in my gut, I don’t think these images should be shared. Journalists want to inform but at what point does it go too far? I think if even one innocent person could be negatively affected by sharing the content, the journalist should take measures to protect those involved. At the very least, this man’s face should have been blurred out.

    • Hello Kaitlin, I appreciate how you analysis always helps me see a little bit farther. In this case, you address several key points relevant to this discussion. The first one is interpretation in regards to context. When we see a photo like this (I can’t deal with blood either) I turn my attention to what’s more evident, which is that gruesome part. I think I even have to process that before I sympathize with a victim. Not to say I don’t have a heart, it’s just that’s to much to handle and it’s very impactful stuff. Because I block and most of the time just see the photo once, I never have a chance to see what’s behind, like those persons helping the one on this example. I never get to see that compassionate part and the scene in which we help each other in difficult times. I think it’s not our fault. It’s the fault of who publishes the photo clearly with other intentions. I’m not sure they see that compassion. They probably see that they were in the frontline and got that “viral” photo. I think there’s a lack of that human aspect you mention.

      I also agree with you regarding consent and I addressed that in my blog too because obviously timing doesn’t make it right to get consent, but out of respect, I don’t think those type of photos should be published. I wonder if they stop for a second and put themselves in other’s shows and ask whether it will have implications in the future. In this case, it did and the photo is still disturbing to him.

      • Hi Celeste – From one queasy stomach to another, I would have to agree that if the context does not aid in getting the point of the image across (i.e. the injury versus the compassion of others, etc.), it takes a moment to get past the most shocking part of the image and really take in anything other than the fact that man was seriously injured. In fact, even with the corresponding content emphasizing whatever the focus of the message may be, it’s still hard to see anything other than the mangled leg at first. What if that part was blurred out? I understand blurring out a face more often than not has to do with privacy, but what if the bigger issue is the lack of sensitivity? Would cropping or blurring the missing leg show more sensitivity?
        I would have to agree that I would typically have just turned my head and moved on if I came across an image like this and it wasn’t part of an assignment; however, since it was, I really tried to take more of the image in than I typically would have. I would most certainly agree that unfortunately the motives for publishing images of this nature lack the human, compassionate aspect. Think for a second – Why aren’t these journalists helping these individuals as well instead of photographing them? Doesn’t the insensitivity start there? I in no way think you lack a heart because of where your focus goes; however, I can’t say that some of these journalists’ hearts aren’t cold.

    • Hi Erin – Thank you for your comment. I would agree that the man’s face being blurred would have at least shown some respect for his privacy (at the very least).
      You bring up an amazing point about consent regarding imagery as a participant in the race. I’m sure media sources photograph and write about the event, and there’s likely no way to track anyone and everyone down in the images, especially considering they may not even know which image they will use at the time.
      I would be very interested to learn about the legal requirements regarding imagery of individuals in public media sources, as I simply don’t know what the regulations entail. I’m especially curious when it comes to children or other individuals that may be negatively affected as a result of their image being shared (i.e. a criminal). However, as a member of the public, I may want to know who’s who regarding a local crime in order to simply be informed, aware and provide some level of self-protection for my family and me.
      Even though you chose a different approach, it’s refreshing to hear that other peers struggled with this as well, and realized that we ourselves were asking the same questions journalists ask themselves (or at least should)…on a much smaller scale of course. Many of these decisions simply come down to personal opinion, and it’s impossible to please everyone.

  2. Great post! I agreed with a lot of your points. I too found that photo hard to look at. I also found myself asking all of those questions when I did see it. As you stated, he must have given his permission to use that photo, but, like you said, could you image what he was going through at that moment in his life? His entire life changed in one moment, and I am sure he wasn’t quite sure where his path in life would go after such traumatic thing. He is now married with a baby, which is wonderful news, but knowing that his child can google his dad’s name and see such horrific images on the internet is scary. I am sure he will share that with his child when the time is right, but having that ALL over the internet, and as the photo associated with the Boston bombing must be hard. I too believe that there are things that should be shared and things and shouldn’t and that is one that shouldn’t, even if he gave permission. I was also shocked to see some of the other images on the internet form the bombings. I came across a few that made me very very uncomfortable.

    • Hi Casey –
      I’m really unsure whether this man gave consent or if he would have even needed to. As Erin mentioned in her comment and I addressed in my reply to her, it’s possible that in the waiver these participants sign, that they also agree to be photographed for public use, as this event is highly publicized in general.
      It’s so great to hear about the bright future of the man in the image. I would agree it’s absolutely horrifying to think his child could come across this image on his own. However, with it being an injury that is physically visible and given the questions kids ask, I would imagine the father would talk about the incident prior to his kid Googling any images.
      While the image is incredibly gruesome, as devil’s advocate, to some degree this is a historical moment and the man may be confortable being a “poster child” (for lack of a better word) to help bring awareness to the incident, the effects and the ability for the injured to overcome the obstacles that the incident created for them. If I recall correctly, I believe there were individuals injured in the bombing that made it their goal to recover and participate again to prove their strength and to not let the bombers bring them down. This story may serve as a source of strength for other runners affected by the incident.
      Again – it’s all about context. Thanks for your comment Casey.

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