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Picturing disaster

Phil Coomes | 14:43 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Mathew McDermott's photograph of Kiki being lifted from the rubble

One month ago on 12 January a devastating earthquake struck Haiti leaving more than 150,000 people dead and 1.5 million homeless. As with all large-scale news stories there was an initial rush for pictures as the wire services and television news crews arrived on the scene and filed their first stories or pictures.
During the first days following the quake thousands of photos ran on the picture wire services showing the chaos on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince. As you can imagine, a large number of these photographs contained graphic content, pictures that are hard to look at, yet they show a truth of sorts, providing an insight into the scale and horror of the event and the lives of those affected.

Working on the web means we have to be very careful when we select which pictures to use as the site is accessible to all ages and so any graphic pictures should be clearly signposted. This is why picture galleries containing images of that type will carry a warning message or strap across the first photo. Readers can then decide whether to continue or not.

Yes we have a responsibility to our readers to tell the story and that can mean using pictures that some readers might find upsetting, but it must be justified at all times.

How much is it right to show? How do you portray the situation as truthfully as possible and yet maintain the dignity of those pictured? Different publications have varying levels of what they deem acceptable, as indeed each reader will also have their own levels of acceptability.

The photographers who are on the ground are there to bear witness to the events, to create pictures that convey the story as they see it, and sometimes that means creating pictures that will shock us, make us cry or indeed offend. So be it.

Yes all news reporting could be labelled as an act of intrusion to some extent, yet there is a need to inform the world as to the events and in this case to hopefully drive aid, though it's also true to say there are times to put down the camera and help, and indeed times to stay at home.

There is an argument that says the pictures are no more than clichés, where one disaster becomes indistinguishable from the next, but a photograph can only do so much; it is after all just reflected light and when used in the right context the essentially mute images can have a voice.

It is true that the scale of destruction can be shown with pictures of the collapsed buildings and satellite imagery, but it is always the human element that gives a picture its power.

Who can forget the photograph by Mathew McDermott of Kiki being lifted from the rubble after nearly eight days (above). I'd argue that a photograph like this can do far more than any number of pictures of the dead ever will.


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