A Blurry Double Standard? A Photo from the Boston Marathon Bombing

A Blurry Double Standard? A Photo from the Boston Marathon Bombing

Before I begin with an observation of a photo that emerged from yesterday’s horrific bombings, I’d like to first take a moment to acknowledge the insignificance of my thoughts vis a vis the tragedy that has unfolded. There have been many great pieces that have already emerged in the first 24 hours like this one from Bruce Schneier of The Atlantic. That said, I blog about salient issues in photography, and there is no better time to discuss an issue than when it is in our collective consciousness.

Freelance photographer Melissa Golden raised an interesting observation about a particularly gruesome photo that was featured on The Atlantic’s InFocus column.

Photo by Charles Krupa/AP (Editor’s note: The above image is a crop of The Atlantic’s image. Warning: extremely graphic. Click to see the full, unblurred image.)

From her Facebook page, Melissa commented, “Number 8 in this gallery is horrifying, but I’m very concerned with the In Focus’ decision to blur the face. Since when do legitimate print journalism outfits modify photos like this? Run it or don’t, but don’t enact a double standard for Americans when we’re totally cool running unadulterated photos of bombing victims from foreign lands.”

Interestingly, the image was originally run without the pixelation, but The Atlantic decided to make adjust the image with the following statement: “Note: An earlier version of this gallery featured this photo with the graphic warning but without the image blurred. We have since decided to blur the subject’s face out of his respect for privacy.”

My initial reaction was in opposition to Melissa. I supported the blurring, but not necessarily because of the typical argument the family members hadn’t been notified yet. I reasoned that the flow of real-time information today is different from an editorial decision to publish an image of a dead soldier a week or even a day later. Just like the Super Bowl, I argued to myself that we needed the 10 second tape delay to be able to censor out objectionable content until we had time to consider its impact.

But upon further reflection, I realized that this is bunk.

Consider for a moment that just two weeks ago, Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered a devastating leg injury which broke his bone and pierced his skin, sending blood onto the basketball floor. This scene was broadcast live, and then in slow-mo, and then over and over again on TV and the Internet. Consider the Pulitzer Prize Winning photography from Syria that featured maimed and murdered people. Consider the World Press Photo grand prize photo that featured two dead children. The cat is already out of the bag. We live in Internet time. We individually apply editorial decisions to every tweet, Facebook post, and Instagram that we create. There is no more waiting a week to gut check whether a photo is appropriate or not for publication. The bombing occurred in broad daylight at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Dozens, if not, hundreds of people saw this victim roll by them in the wheelchair. This isn’t a case of violence behind closed doors where release of the image would violate reasonable privacy or would jeopardize the prosecution of the case.

A free society can determine the standards by which they live by. I certainly believe that children should be shielded from horrific images and pornography. But a well-informed society shouldn’t have a double standard for “us” vs “them” or “sports” vs “news.” When it comes to newsworthy items, we should not allow ourselves to censor the flow of information. As Schneier opined in the aforementioned piece, “But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we’re scared.”

Let the news flow freely, gruesomely if necessary. And let’s refuse to have our eyes covered in the face of adversity.

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There are 19 comments for this article
  1. Dave at 12:12 pm

    I am torn, I basically agree with you but I wonder if this a good thing. Because we live in an instant information world the filters we once used are now pointless. Where we would have hours or even days to decide if running an image was proper, we now have seconds, minutes at best. Journalism has a responsibility to convey information in a timely and most of all accurate fashion. Yet, the repercussions of make such a snap decisions could have a profound effect on people’s lives, I wonder how you or I would feel if it were our loved one in that chair and THIS is how we discovered he was injured. That being said, I would have run the photo unmodified were I the editor…but I would be questioning that decision for a long time afterwards.

  2. Dan Speicher-Pittsburgh Wedding Photographer at 12:22 pm

    Im not sure where I stand on this. I think initially perhaps you hold off for an hour or two before releasing it, but when you do decide to publish it, i think that you have to go all in. What we saw was a bombing. Not someone getting a bloody nose playing basketball, but an attempt at mass murder. This shows the horrific results of those actions. Run it and show everything, or decide not to run it and show nothing.

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  4. Simon Brown at 1:10 pm

    Like yourself, Dave and Dan I’d say run the full unadulterated image. I would say the same were the image of myself, my father or my beloved daughter.

    Over here in the UK I grew up with the promise of Irish terrorism, much of it foreign funded. The results of such murderer’s actions are often, shall we call it romanticised. Images such as this show the reality of what happens when a cowardly murderer places an explosive device in a crowded place. That’s a real human whose been blown apart, not pixels on a game screen. And that’s real human courage and kindness helping him.

    My sincere condolences to those who lost loved ones and sympathies to those injured. And utter respect and admiration for those who helped.

  5. Dennis Jones at 2:07 pm

    The picture dispict a human being in a terrible moment in time. It is terribly sad what that person is living, he is a victim, he is in public , to hide his face is like lying. Even to post his face, family and friends, can id him. Especially when goverment agencies kill the cell phones. Communications are down. If we don’t want to see the victims, just read the story. Don’t look at the pictures. Truth is priceless, you have the power to decide, to watch it or not. But not to decide for others. I do respect, and protect, rape victims, and children victims of rape and violence. Unless the victim (adult) wants you to publish their face.
    I would put a warning, so you can know, the graphic nature of the picture, so you can protect your child, or children. This is life, it is reality, not fiction. In fiction movies you see worse things.

  6. Danielle Richards at 8:27 pm

    I saw both versions of the image, and the decision to blur his face was wrong, in my opinion. It dehumanizes the situation, and puts the focus on the graphic nature of the injury rather than the personification of the tragedy. Blurring his face creates an image devoid of emotion, and lacking any human connection. The original version is a much more powerful image; we can see the shock and disbelief in his face as well as the sense of urgency of those around him. His face was about the only part of his body still intact; by focusing solely on the traumatic injury by blurring his face, it only serves to further desensitize society to graphic violence – he becomes anonymous. I honestly don’t think there is any expectation of privacy in any spot news photos, particularly of a bombing, and the decision to blur his face is that much more perplexing in that context.

  7. Michelle at 8:36 pm

    My step brother went through the horror of hearing over the radio 35 years ago that his brother and sister had been burned to death in a car crash.

    I do not think we have the right to broadcast the images, names etc of victims, just because everyone has access to the technology to do so.

  8. Robin Hadder at 12:55 pm

    There is more alteration to this photo than simply the blur. The original photo shows that his legs are missing from about the knee down and shows protruding bone and dangling veins. Most media outlets have cropped out the lower part of this photo.

    It is rare when “sports photographers” become “news photographers,” in the sense that they are photographing something of extreme historic or cultural significance. But it does happen, just as the average citizens on the street became photojournalists. This photographer, if I am not mistaken, was a photojournalist from the Boston Globe. But it could have been any one of us. I applaud his courage in taking this photo and submitting it as it originally was, unedited.

    Photos like this or the horrific ones from 9-11-2001 stir public sentiment to seek justice. They are gruesome but important. What happened to this man in the photo, and the others who were hurt, was despicable beyond words. This photo puts a human face on what happened. It says who no words could possibly say. The viewer must necessarily think, “What if that were my brother, father or husband? What if that were me?” They must think about what law enforcement or government response should be, to such an attack against our citizens. The emotional impact of the photo also gives meaning to the heroic actions of the first responders and ordinary citizens of the people on the scene. They did not freeze in the face of danger and horror. They saved lives.

    If parents want to protect young children from images such as this, during a national tragedy, that is up to them and their own personal morals and standards. Be a responsible parent. If you feel it will damage their psyche, turn off the TV, unplug the internet and hide the newspapers. Then spend one-on-one time actually talking about what happened to your children and about your family’s beliefs about what is right and wrong.

    I am often offended at the news media for exploiting one particular story, to the exclusion of much other important news, for the sake of ratings. However, the media’s self-censorship that I have seen this week, I feel is both shocking and cowardly. The original photo is the truth. The censorship is a distortion of a very important truth. America deserves better.

  9. Paul W. Faust at 4:21 pm

    This shot with the face blurred is the 3rd version I have seen. The 1st had the legs made to look like they were bandaged. One with most of the legs gone. Is it a double standard? When you come right down to it I consider 99% of what the wimpy press does is nothing but fraud. They are presenting an outright lie when they do not show something as it really is.

    I’m still trying to think when all this phony need to protect the public started. I don’t need protecting and I sure as hell do not need anyone making that decision for me. I remember a long time ago when newspapers would print every kind of photo taken at accidents and crimes. One I saw back then was of an auto accident with the victim sitting in the drivers set with a pole sticking through his head. We didn’t need protecting back then – why do we now? and who is it that thinks they have the right, and Godly position, to decide that for us?

    If an image is too graphic for children, that’s the parents job to keep it from them, but it is NOT the press’s job to do it from me. It’s bad enough that the press can’t even get the fact of an event correct, but to outright “change” the facts to their standards is FRAUD!

  10. Michael Ellis-Bailey at 10:39 am

    I have to agree with Rick Browns comments “secrecy is incompatible with democracy and therefore there should be no censorship of any kind”. But even the “of any kind” is debatable particularly certain areas of life and very emotive.

    People around the world look to and are fighting for the American/Western model of democracy, free speech and independent media, something that in Britain is being hotly debated at present. Any form of censorship is controversial and does come with a lose of some freedoms. This sort of thing is the thin end of a very big wedge in the UK we have laws on the statue books that are being used in ways never intended not always for the good of democracy. The more we close down our society the more victories we hand those people who commit such terrible acts.

    My sincere condolences to those victims of the Boston bombing.

  11. Sue at 2:42 pm

    The question is… do we want to live in a sensitized or desensitized society.. I vote for sensitized therefore, I vote that photos be censored in certain circumstance.. terrorism vs a sport injury seems obvious. Children seems obvious and events that have just occurred seems obvious. Limiting the number of images is the key to keeping a society sensitive… but I’m guessing we are at the point of no return with little hope of preserving said society. Something we will regret someday.

  12. Dean at 7:46 am

    Arbitrarily blurring in journalism? Next will be blurring politicians caught in embarrassing situations. Allow the viewer to decide what they wish to view. It’s news, not reality TV.

  13. Dean Oros at 7:50 am

    Hi there PS. Forgot to include my surname in my previous comment awaiting moderation. Please add it. Cheers and thanks.

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