Face to face with tragedy

It was hard to look at some of the pictures of suffering and death caused by the earthquake in Haiti — and impossible to turn away.

The top of one front page in The Times was dominated by a woman, her hand to her cheek, as if in shock, walking past partially covered corpses lined up along a dirty curb. The next day, an even larger photograph at the top of Page 1 showed a man covered in gray dust, lying alone, dead, statue-like, on a stretcher made from a piece of tattered cardboard spread over a crude ladder. Inside that same paper, the Friday after the disaster, was a gruesome scene from the central morgue in Port-au-Prince: a man mourning the death of his 10-month-old daughter, lying in her diaper atop a pile of bodies.

Some readers were offended at these scenes and even more graphic pictures on the paper’s Web site, calling them exploitive and sensationalistic. “The numerous photographs printed in The Times showing the dead strewn about the streets of Port-au-Prince are unnecessary, unethical, unkind and inhumane,” wrote Randy Stebbins of Hammond, La. Christa Robbins of Chicago said, “I feel that the people who have suffered the most are being spectacularized by your blood-and-gore photographs, which do not at all inform me of the relief efforts, the political stability of the region or the extent of damage to families and infrastructure.” She spoke for several readers when she added, “If this had happened in California, I cannot imagine a similar depiction of half-clothed bodies splayed out for the camera. What are you thinking?”

But other readers were grateful for the shocking pictures, even as they were deeply troubled by them. Mary Louise Thomas of Palatka, Fla., said a different photo of the baby, lying on her dead mother, caused her to cry out, “Oh, my God!” and to sob for an hour. “But run from it? Never,” she said. People repelled by such images “should really try staring truth in the face occasionally and try to understand it,” she wrote.

Mary Claire Carroll of Richmond, Vt., asked, “How else can you motivate or inspire someone like me to donate money” to help out in Haiti? Her son, she added, thinks Americans “are too sheltered and protected from the real world.”

Every disaster that produces horrific scenes of carnage presents photographers and their editors with the challenge of telling the unsanitized truth without crossing into the offensive and truly exploitive. In 2004, when a giant undersea earthquake unleashed a tsunami that killed tens of thousands along Indian Ocean coastlines, The Times ran a dramatic front-page photo of a woman overcome with grief amid rows of dead children, including her own. Some readers protested, but the newspaper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, concluded that the paper was right to publish the picture. It told the story of the tsunami, he said.

I asked Kenneth Irby, leader of the visual journalism group at the Poynter Institute in Florida, for his assessment of the pictures from Haiti. Irby brings unusual perspectives to the task. He is a veteran photojournalist and an ordained minister, the pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Palmetto, Fla. His wife’s best friend is Haitian, and her family was still unaccounted for when we talked last week. “I think the Times coverage has been raw, truthful and tasteful,” he told me, defending even the most graphic images.

Irby, who has been in touch with photographers in Haiti, said survivors want the world to see what has happened. “The actual loved ones, the bereaved, implore the journalists to tell their stories,” he said.

That is exactly what Damon Winter told me. He is the Times photographer who took the pictures that elicited most of the protests to me and much praise on the paper’s Web site. Winter, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his coverage of the Obama presidential campaign, was the first Times staff photographer on the scene, flying from New York to the Dominican Republic and then into Haiti aboard a chartered helicopter. He had never been to Haiti or covered a natural disaster.

“I have had so many people beg me to come to their home and photograph the bodies of their children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers,” he said. “There are so many times that I have to apologize and say that I cannot, that I have photographed so many bodies already, and I think it breaks their hearts because they so desperately want people to know what has happened to them, what tremendous pain they are in, and that they desperately need help.” Winter said it was important “that I do whatever I can to try and make our readers understand just how dire the situation is here.”

Jessie De Witt, an international photo editor, said Winter sent the paper 26 pictures on his first day in Haiti, including the picture of the bodies along the curb that wound up on the front page. He sent 65 the next day, including the mourning father and the dead man on the stretcher. De Witt and her colleagues think carefully about photo selections. A picture of a dog eyeing a corpse is out, as are stacks of bodies without context. And they think about juxtaposition: an Armageddon-like scene of people scrambling for supplies from a ruined store was played against a quieter picture of people waiting patiently for medical treatment.

Michele McNally, the assistant managing editor in charge of photography, said she was going through all the photos from all sources, and Winter’s photos of the single dead man and the grieving father “stopped me in my tracks.” Bill Keller, the executive editor, said editors considered both for the front page, but chose the lone body, played big, because it was dramatic and there was “an intimacy that causes people to pause and dwell on the depth of the tragedy.” Looking at one person, instead of many, “humanizes it,” he said.

I asked McNally about Robbins’s contention that such pictures would not appear in the paper if the victims were somewhere in the United States. If such pictures existed, she said, she would run them. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, The Times did publish a front-page picture of a body floating near a bridge where a woman was feeding her dog. But despite Katrina’s toll, there were relatively few such images in the paper. Irby said that authorities in the United States are generally quick to cordon off disaster scenes.

Just as a picture of a grieving mother told the story of the tsunami in 2004, the disturbing images of the last two weeks have been telling the story of Haiti, and The Times is right to publish them. As Patricia Lay-Dorsey, a reader from Detroit, put it, Winter’s “camera was my eye as much as it was his. And every one of his photos told the truth.”

This column was originally published in The New York Times on January 24, 2010.

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