Depictions of people facing death have been used in news coverage since before the advent of photography. The earliest were illustrations, engravings and woodcuts, such as drawings of President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
But it was photography that gave people the ability to capture action as it was unfolding, says Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication, particularly in photos of someone facing death.
Zelizer’s new book, “About to Die: How News Images Move the Public,” addresses questions that surround what she calls “about-to-die” photos, using images of imminent death as a litmus test for considering news imagery and visual meaning more broadly.
In the 1930s and ’40s, photojournalists, who were still trying to prove their worth within the world of print journalism, sought out “about-to-die” photos.
“The acclaim, both from the professional community of other journalists, as well as from the public, was pretty much unanimous,” Zelizer says.
It was not until later, when the technological triumph of capturing these photos began to wane, that people began to consider the ethical and moral issues raised by the photos.
“It’s not only the technology that actually causes a change in the moral response to these photos, it’s also where we are as a public,” Zelizer says, “where our collective conscious sits vis-à-vis the ethical or unethical action of taking a picture of somebody as they’re facing death.”
Zelizer identifies three different kinds of “about-to-die” photos: presumed death, possible death and certain death.
Presumed death photos depict widespread destruction, but generally do not feature any people.
“It’s usually structural devastation as might occur after an earthquake, after a large fire, after a landslide,” Zelizer says. “What you get are pictures of flooded terrain after a tsunami, crumbled structures after 9/11, with no depiction of the people who actually face their death within those structures.”
Possible death images show people who are stand-ins for those who die, but do not necessarily die themselves.
“These are pictures of people languishing in a flood, languishing after disease, languishing after some kind of accident, but it’s never made clear as to whether or not they themselves actually die,” Zelizer says. “They’re actually symbolic proxies for a death that tends to occur to far larger numbers of people than what we actually see.” Images of possible death are often used for humanitarian efforts.
Certain death photos show a person who the viewer knows actually dies. The individual can be famous, such as John F. Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald, or not so well-known, such as Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot to death in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the Second Intifada in the Middle East.
Zelizer, who spent nearly two decades living in Jerusalem, says images from the Intifada, such as the death of al-Durrah, are what motivated her to write the book.
“It was very much a landmark image for the precise reason that everybody who saw it went different ways with its interpretation,” she says. “It continues to be debated as to what actually the sequence of images show.”
For her research, Zelizer spoke to photographers and photo editors and collected material from various photo archives across three centuries of American photojournalism.
The book details some of the ways photographers had to make varying pacts with the photographs they took. Some photojournalists actually ended up leaving the field, she says. South African photojournalist Kevin Carter committed suicide after taking a controversial photo of a vulture waiting to eat an emancipated child.
Zelizer says that “about-to-die” images, both with their patterning and frequency, suggest that it is not just information that is at stake in looking at images of people about to die, but also engagement.
“We’re dealing with people engaging with what they see, regardless of whether or not they understand it,” she says. “And because engagement is connected with all kinds of fuzzy alternatives—like emotions, like the imagination, like contingency, like playfulness, like conditionality—these are not the kinds of attributes that we like to think are actively at play in the news. And what I am hoping to do with this book is to heighten our awareness of how important imagination, emotion and contingency actually are in our engagement with news on a daily basis, and even more so in news having to do with crises, tragedies and disasters of a very public sort.”
Originally published on October 28, 2010