The images

Journalists breaking tradition in coverage

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post / January 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The images coming out of Haiti are more graphic than those from recent natural disasters, and from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not clear whether this reflects the magnitude of the disaster, or some change in the willingness of newspapers and other media to accurately present the full horror of the earthquake that devastated the desperately poor nation on Tuesday afternoon.

Or is Haiti simply an exception? Is there something about the essential status of the entire country and its people that gives the media new license?

The usual conventions of suggesting instead of displaying trauma seem to have been punctured, at least for now. Bodies caked in dust and plaster, faces covered in blood, the dead stacked in the streets without sheets to hide them - these are all violations of the unwritten code that death can only be seen, in the established etiquette of the mainstream media, by analogy or metaphor or discreet substitute.

On Friday, The Washington Post ran a picture of a young girl, seen from behind, her torso crushed by the weight of fallen concrete. The New York Times ran a picture of a dead man on a makeshift stretcher, covered in the white dust that makes so many of the bodies - living or dead - look sculptural. The BBC’s website featured a warning about the graphic nature of its image gallery, which included a young girl looking up imploringly at the camera while a man, half buried in rubble and his face turned away, bled profusely down his back. Old ladies are seen disheveled and almost naked; the bandages on children do not hide the gore.

Images of war, especially the wars the United States has been fighting for almost a decade now, are always politicized. Graphic representation of death is explosive, and it is customary in this country to control it, for fear of inflaming passions, either for or against the conflict. In recent years, and in contrast to millenniums of history in which wounds and blood were proudly displayed by warriors (come back with your shield, or on it, the Greeks said), the soldier’s privacy has been seen as paramount. And so in the United States, images of wartime suffering are intricately referential but rarely graphic: a shattered car, but not its occupants; blood on the ground, but not the body that bled; clothing scattered among rubble, but not the people who once lived there.

The fear of violating the victim’s privacy, which is a strange and dubious scruple, is not in operation in Haiti. After years of hinting at horror, the scales have fallen, the camera is unsheathed as a seemingly transparent window on misery, and journalists are allowed to show the worst, and say with the blunt, desperate urgency of the best journalism: Look.

More than anything else, however, the willingness to look this disaster square on reflects the problematic, even embarrassing status of Haiti. It was a country tossed aside, seemingly consigned to the status of a street person whose needs are intractable. There were, of course, years of engagement and disengagement, as the United States and countries from around the hemisphere intervened (often disastrously) in Haitian politics. There were UN resolutions, peacekeepers, and aid efforts. But with devastating hurricanes, a failed political system, corruption, coups, and riots, Haiti became the very definition of a failed state. To be blunt: It came to seem as though the people of Haiti had no status.

If you believe that, then it is impossible to violate their privacy.