One of the most recent involved one image among many in a powerful gallery of photographs placed online to support the first in a series of articles about the US’s poorest communities, published on 12 November. The article focused on Beattyville, Kentucky. The photographs captured the lives of a community “blighted by a lack of jobs and an addiction to painkillers”.
There was a photograph of a vulnerable family including the children gathered in a group pose. One reader who lived in the area wrote: “I have no major issues with the article. It would be good if positive articles were written about our area every now and again, but overall the article is basically correct. However, I have a major issue with one of the images in the article. In one image, there is a family with the appropriate caption ‘A vulnerable family in Beattyville’. The issue I have is that this picture offers nothing to the article while embarrassing the young males that are in it. Those kids have to go to school with all of their classmates knowing their social class and I know it must be embarrassing. Although I am sure that is not the original intent, I still think it is classless to post such a picture. A picture of just a family without their kids would have shown just as much.”
It was a strong point, well made and clearly in good faith. I discussed the issue with senior editors and the photographer who told me the family had consented.
The Guardian’s head of photography told me that he felt it is a picture that “shows a strong mother and her children grouped round her in quite a protective way”.
He then said: “If we are going to do journalism that investigates poverty and people who are affected, then surely we have to show them?” He made the point that if the concern is that the children may regret the publication when they are older, then that applies to any photographs that feature children and adults on the site, no matter how powerful the reasons for running the picture.
A point in favour of publication is the photograph that became known as “Migrant Mother and her Children” taken by Dorothea Lange in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo in California. According the US Library of Congress, Lange gave this account to Popular Photography in February 1960 of how she met her: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
Birham Woldu became the “face of Live Aid” as a starving three-year-old in 1984. She was put through school, along with other members of her family, by a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation crew that filmed her. However, she has said that the fame the images brought had held her back because “people know my stories and see me with famous people”.
On the other hand Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl caught by an AP photographer in the agonising moments after her village had been hit by napalm bombs, in which she suffered horrific burns, has come to terms with the photograph. She told CNN’s website that she hated the picture; it embarrassed her. But in time she realised that if her pain hadn’t been captured in that way the bombing might have been lost to history. A committed Christian she told CNN: “I realised that if I couldn’t escape that picture, I wanted to go back to work with that picture for peace. And that is my choice.”
Of course, it is complicated by the particular kind of immortalisation conferred by the web on images. Although I havered at the time, I don’t regret the decision made to remove the Beattyville picture, which was made in good faith. However, in general I feel strongly that the Guardian should not abandon the pursuit of powerful images that tell the story through the faces of those who are living it, even though, on some occasions, the newspaper may choose to hold back. Context is the key.
Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/29/can-you-picture-poverty-without-humiliating-the-poor