As the U.S. grapples with yet another mass shooting at a school – this time 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and teachers with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in Florida – the media must ponder how to cover the tragedy, and consumers have to grapple with more existential questions about what can be done to stem epidemic levels of gun violence.
The “common sense” position rejects publication of death photos out of respect for the victim and their families, but the truth is that the media has had an uncomfortable relationship with images of violence, murder and death almost since the inception of photography.
Historically, photos of carnage have had a varied impact. Weegee’s murder photos from the mid-1930s to 1940s were violence porn with nothing more than shock value. Whereas images like David Jackson’s Emmett Till open casket image or Eddie Adams’ execution photo had a profound effect on the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War respectively.
But the world today has changed. The Information Age has brought about an oversaturation of visuals, and the ability for a single photo to impact public opinion or policy has been greatly diminished. Many had hoped that the image of Alan Kurdi, the drowned toddler refugee, would spur significant policy changes in immigration, but instead we only found a society numb to photos of violence.
Daniel Berehulak deftly covered extrajudicial killings in the Philippines for The New York Times – showing the brutal and pornographic toll that President Rodrigo Duterte’s support for vigilante justice has had on the country. Yet little has changed.
Which brings us to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. First person video captured the gruesome execution in near real-time on apps like Snapchat.
Although student-filmed video showed dead bodies, most news outlets preferred to blur out scenes of carnage. The tragedy, in a sense, was too horrible to truly show what had happened. Instead, the public is reliant on verbal testimony from witnesses and punditry from talking heads on both sides of the gun debate. (As a side note, photojournalist J.M. Giordano rhetorically asked why it was ok to show death imagery from 3rd world countries, but not our own).
A number of commentators have hypothesized that if the media showed an image of what an AR-15 does to the human body, gun control measures would pass immediately. But in the current age of hyper-partisanship and lambasting of the mainstream media for producing #fakenews, I’m not sure that this would be the case. It is much more likely that an image of a 14-year old shot to death would be labeled as a political stunt rather than a moment of collective introspection.
I fear that a photo of teenage gunshot victim would merely become an object of curiosity rather than proof of America’s insane obsession with guns – compounding a tragedy with no actionable outcome.