Slate ran an interesting article yesterday by Jim Lewis about the wisdom of newspapers publishing violent images. I can hardly bear to look at such images myself, and agree with the author that used improperly they can tend to overwhelm the news message that the editors are attempting to convey. But the other side of it is that they work at a visceral level that cannot be duplicated. I find this to be more true when it comes to people being wounded rather than killed. To me, dead is dead. When people say hundreds of civilians have died, I know what that means. Wounded, on the other hand, conveys a wider range of meaning. Last year a British journalist who has a weblog lost his foot to a land mine in northern Iraq. Seeing the pictures of his leg all bandaged up after surgery really brought things home in a way that just reading about a missing foot could not. More recently Boing Boing linked to pictures of an Iraqi man who had just been shot in the arm. “Shot in the arm” didn’t sound that horrific to me, but the pictures of a man’s forearm basically turned inside out certainly were. Most people, myself included, are willing to sanction violence in service to other ends, and most people will hopefully never see the immediate effects of that violence first hand. I think people should have enough exposure to the consequences of supporting such violence to absorb some of the implications of it.
The author of the article specifically mentions some pictures he took in Congo of bodies of people who were slaughtered using machetes, and that were never published. A few years ago, National Geographic ran some pictures of people who survived machete attacks during the Rwandan genocide. I’ll never forget those pictures, and the main thing they made me feel was rotten that the rest of the world let that genocide begin and commence until at least half a million people were killed. So I can’t say that I’m against the use of violent images in the media.