Is it ever right to share pictures of death?
Is it ever justified to share photos or video of people in their final moments of life, or who have just been killed? This is a question I have been asking myself a lot over the past 24 hours, since I wrote about Facebook refusing to remove still images from the video of Lt Muab al-kassabeh being burnt to death by the Daesh (aka ISIS) posted to the Britain First Facebook page.
When I started researching the story I was of a single opinion – it’s wrong. Unquestionably wrong. Yet, as the day wore on, I began to question myself.
The first scenario to come into my head was actually an extraordinarily famous photo of suicide – the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. The picture of him sitting cross legged, flames and smoke billowing off him, became one of the defining pictures of the Vietnam War and, to a lesser extent, of defiance of authority. I wouldn’t think twice about posting that picture to Facebook or Twitter, or anywhere really, given an appropriate context.
Then other, similar images came to mind – the children running away from their napalm-struck village, with the little girl at the front, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, whose clothes had been burnt clean off her, the handcuffed prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém being shot in the head at point-blank range by South Vietnam police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, both also from Vietnam. The protester at Kent State University screaming over the body of her dead friend, who had just been shot by the National Guard.
These are iconic images of death and suffering, known so well that in some ways they’ve almost become banal. But they are also invaluable documentation of the state of the world at the time – of mankind in all it’s inglory.
And then I questioned myself. Hadn’t I also published images of death, on social media and on my blog, when writing about the Libyan civil war? Didn’t I pass disturbing footage onto the national news organisations?
I was convinced I was doing the right thing, that I was bearing witness to the horrors of civil war and informing the wider world of the oppression suffered at the hands of the (then) government. But if posting pictures of al-Kassabeh dying and dead is wrong, is what I did wrong as well? And if posting photos of people dying and being injured is justified in order to bring light to a terrible situation, then why do I instinctively shy away from posting pictures of the mangled body of Rachel Corrie?
It’s a difficult question, but for me, the fundamental difference is the intent of the creator image’s creator. None of the images above were taken by those causing the suffering, and the motive was to inform, rather than to terrorise. The images of the death of al-Kassabeh, and all those who went before him back to Daniel Pearl, were created by the perpetrators of their murder as the worst kind of propaganda. They were intended to be shared, especially among those of us in the west, to scare us. To cause revulsion. To terrorise. And by sharing these videos and photos, we are doing their work for them, even if we are doing it in good faith (and not everyone is).
Examining your own ethics is hard, because you will likely find yourself, at least in some small way, to be a hypocrite. But, before we hit the share or publish button online, we should stop and ask ourselves what the purpose of the picture or video is and if, in spreading it, we are informing the world of atrocities, or inadvertently helping those we would wish to condemn.