Weighing the power of pictures

The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true every day in the world of journalism. It’s what drives photographers to capture the essential moment of any story, be it the joy of a child playing in the snow, the pain etched in the face of a grieving mother, the perfect composition of a running back catching the ball while his teammates rejoice in the background.

In a fraction of a second, a picture can tell it all. And it can shake us to our core.

Consider Sam Shere’s photograph of the Hindenburg aflame in 1937. Or Eddie Adams’ photo of a South Vietnamese officer pointing a pistol at the head of a suspected Viet Cong official shortly before shooting him in 1968. Or Kevin Carter’s shot of a starving child collapsed in the Sudan in 1993 while a vulture lurks nearby.

These photos are gruesome, heartbreaking, so powerful they’ve become historical symbols for the fallibility of airships, the brutality of the Vietnam War, the famine that plagued North Africa.

But where do newspapers draw the line in running disturbing images? It's a common debate in newsrooms across the country. Photographers will argue they don’t seek out violent images — they capture what is there. Like reporters, photographers tell stories, and newspapers can't — and shouldn't — shield readers from violence or tragedy when it occurs in their own communities. Only through awareness can further suffering be prevented.

On Tuesday, we covered a fatality on South Central Avenue in which a male pedestrian had been hit while in the middle of the road. Photographer Andy Atkinson had gotten there quickly, before the body was covered, but running such a photo wasn’t necessary to tell the story. We chose instead a photo of responders standing over the body after it had been covered with a sheet, with police car lights and morning fog creating an eerie backdrop.

To me, that photo told the story in one well-composed shot. And it came to mind the next day and the next, when I drove to work in heavy fog and remained hyper-vigilant about watching for pedestrians or dark shadows that might turn out to be people.

I got an email from a woman I highly respect who remembered a horrific day in her 30s when she pulled out the Tulsa Daily World the day after her mother died in a car crash and saw a photo of her lying dead in the street under a sheet. Of Tuesday's photo, she said: “It is a person under that sheet and somewhere someone loved that man. And someday maybe someone will look up the story of how he died. I don’t think it’s necessary to show a dead person in the street to make it real.”

We believed the photo told the story in a succinct way without being unnecessarily graphic. But the email was a poignant reminder to me and to our newsroom to make sure we carefully consider all aspects of running photos that might cause others pain.

I do know that single image stays with me — and no doubt with many others — each time I get in the driver's seat.

— Reach Mail Tribune Editor Cathy Noah at cnoah@mailtribune.com.

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