A couple of weeks ago, I came across what is probably the best use of Photoshop I’ve ever seen. New York Daily News photographer and editor, Marc A. Hermann searched the News‘s archives and found grisly crime scene images, which he then put on top of photographs of modern-day New York, making for a truly fascinating juxtaposition of past and present. Not only is it visually stunning to see these jarringly violent scenes transposed onto now tranquil New York streets, but it is also interesting to see the type of grisly images that used to be standard in New York papers, leading me to wonder why we don’t see as many graphic, disturbing images inside the papers anymore, let alone on the cover.
In a culture where people flock to movies that feature torture porn (the Saw franchise, Human Caterpillar, etc.) and where any kind of gory, violent real-life event is available to the masses on YouTube (my brother once sent me a link to a video of an alligator tearing apart a wart hog, upon which i did not click, but still…it exists, and is probably about the most tame yet violent thing available online), it certainly seems like we could handle the kind of scenes that Hermann dug up from past issues of the News. And yet, instead, we rarely see grisly crime or accident photos anymore, and instead get images of the victims in happier times, before tragedy struck. Perhaps one of the reasons that we don’t see such photos is that far fewer photographers are employed full-time by news outlets, rendering it difficult to have cameras on-the-scene, so that by the time a crime or an accident can be recorded, it’s already been cleaned-up, the site of the tragedy has been sanitized. In fact, it’s much more likely that an amateur photographer will bear witness to an event than a professional. One notable example ofthat was a New York Post cover from last December. Following the murder of Ki Suk Han, who was pushed onto the tracks and hit by an oncoming train, the Post published a cover photo taken of Han just seconds before his death. This photo was taken by a man on the platform (credited by the paper as a “New York Post freelance photographer”) and resulted in no small amount of media outcry, due to the fact that it was seen as sensationalizing a man’s tragic death in order to sell papers. And yet, it is hard to deny that this photo made an impact on just about anyone who saw it, and made the horror of the crime far more real than a simple photo of a smiling Han would have done.
The reason I’m even thinking of all this right now, is that last Saturday, gunmen from the Shabab, a Somali militant Islamic group, stormed into the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and began an assault that is, as of today, still ongoing. The New York Times reported on this horrific event, and included very graphic images on its website’s home page, including those of a blood-covered floor, twisted bodies of murdered men and women, children crawling around corpses, trying to find a way to escape the massacre. Eventually, the Times removed the most disturbing images from its homepage and included them all in a slideshow that had a warning label on it, due to the graphic nature of the images. Some people questioned if the Times would have felt comfortable prominently displaying the images of dead Americans, or if there was a double standard at play because most of the victims in this case (or at least, the ones seen in the Times photos) were African, and thus were not protected in the same way. This, unfortunately, is very probably the case, as such photos were certainly not used to illustrate the story of the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. last week. However, the Times was also in the unique position of having a staff photographer at the scene in Nairobi, and thus was privy to photographs that no other news outlet had at the time. These images (shot by Tyler Hicks) are heart-rending and horrifying, but most of all, are important to see. They’re important not because it’s impossible to feel empathy for the victims without them, but because it is an essential part to fully understanding what is going on at Westgate. The more sterilized our news becomes, the less power these horrifying tragedies have on those of us who were not directly touched. Although there are claims made that these images are insensitive to the victims and their families, sometimes a larger good is at stake. If these photos can be used to make an impact on the people who see them, not in an exploitative way, but in a way meant to expose the kind of things that happen when there are assault weapons on the street or when this city’s mental health facilities are being shut down, leaving our streets and subway stations as new homes for untreated, mentally disturbed men and women. Perhaps if more people actually saw what the human toll is in events like this, maybe, at least in the case of the mass shootings that have become all too common in America or the subway assaults, more people will be inclined to want to effect change, lest they find themselves as the subject of one of these photos one day.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen