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Saturday, 2 March 2019

Deaths that aren't shown


Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother Julius, who allegedly fought back and was killed by police during what they said was a drug sting operation, at a morgue in Malabon, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 22, 2017. At the morgue, the family noticed Julius’ wrists had cuff marks. The arm had a bullet wound too, and the slug was still embedded in his arm right where the cuff mark was, suggesting that the cuffs had stopped the bullet. © Ezra Acayan




My latest offering on World Press Photo Witness is on deaths in photography and how death is shown or not shown.

See my previous post, Rethinking the Ethical judgement of photography here...

I often wonder that what really defines photography is not what is shown, but more particularly what is not shown, and why it is not shown, and who decides it is not shown, and whose purposes that serves.

The not showing of something, the censorship is far more powerful in some ways and shapes how we see and understand the world. We don't see death in UK publications very much for example. It wasn't always that way. It is now.

This is from the piece...

Examples of when suffering is deliberately not shown provide a counter argument to this idea. From its earliest beginnings, war photography has been defined as much by what it doesn’t show as what it does. This tradition of not showing death extends around the world and is quite revealing of the power of photography to shock, outrage, and move people. This power is evident in the fear governments have of photography.

During the Great Leap Forward in China, around 45 million people are estimated to have starved to death. Yet there are no images of these deaths. The only images the government wanted were positive ones. Atrocity images of piles of dead bodies, of cannibalism, of people eating mud and tree bark in a vain attempt to survive do not exist. If they did, perhaps the history of China would be very different.

The political goals of photography are equally apparent in the post-9/11 images of the Iraq War when, between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. That asymmetry of reporting is still something apparent today in the ongoing debates of who is shown and who is not shown to be suffering in US media.

It is the same in the UK. There is an increasing reluctance to show people suffering, and when people are shown to be suffering to focus on those overseas in places where disaster and war are presented as part of the natural scheme of things with limited captioning or reporting to contextualise the image or state otherwise. 

The solution to this is not to eliminate all images of suffering but rather to create a more level playing field. Some of the most terrible pictures I have seen in British newspapers are from the Hillsborough Disaster but I think they serve a purpose, I think they helped in some small part create a counter narrative that was really struggled for and is only now, 30 years after the event, gaining some kind of just end. The trial of the police officer in charge during the disaster did not happen by accident and would not have happened if it hadn't been fought for.


Photography and its publication (and the lack of it), serves political narratives. Photography is also subservient to news, and news is a commodity. It is something that can be traded and sold and photographers operate within that system, creating work that can fit both the demands of the publications they work for, and the narratives that help make a story newsworthy and palatable to governments, owners, advertisers and, finally, the public.

Perhaps that's why I think photographers such as Ezra Acayan, who record death, who lay out murdered bodies for the world to see, are so important. There are people (the murderers) who don't want those bodies to be seen, yet still he, and others persist. This is also from the piece

One of the contributors of Everyday Impunity is Ezra Acayan, a photographer who has photographed more than 500 murders (out of an estimated 12,000) and 100 funerals since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 2016. His pictures are beautifully composed, dramatically lit studies of death, grief and mourning that fit into a photojournalistic template. But they go beyond that as well. In an email interview, he describes the process of photographing the War on Drugs:
“I suddenly found myself in the frontline of this ‘war’, and at first I wanted to show the brutality of it all. Despite the large number of deaths, most of the public never saw the killings personally; almost all victims were poor and were killed in the slums.”

Read the whole article here.... 

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