The Importance of ‘Disturbing Images’

September 2, 2002
Category: Archive

By Patt Blue
International Center of Photography

Editor’s Note: Photographer Patt Blue submitted this commentary as a contribution to the discussion surrounding the use of disturbing images from the attacks. Poynter’s Kenny Irby addressed the issue in an article published Sept. 15 on

“Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see,
is what my life as a war reporter is all about.”

Unreasonable Behavior: An Autobiography
Don McCullin

The harrowing experience of seeing a newspaper reproduction of a “perfectly formed severed hand,” hardly competes with the emotional moment of the photographer who witnessed it in reality. All photojournalists know that reality is not a framed and frozen image==it is chaos, loud, dirty, and grossly disorganized. The reality is always much scarier than any representation a photographer might manage to frame and put on disc or film. This became very clear to me when I was photographing for Life magazine. My editor doubted the truth of my photographs and deployed a reporter to the hospital where I had been doing a project on chronic disability to see if I might have overly dramatized what was “really” there. She reported back to the editor that the reality was much worse than what the photographs showed.

Consider that our photographs have less power than we think they do. An image is just that, “imag,” not reality. Our perception of images is influenced by many other factors, including the power of our imagination, past memories, and personal fears. Images provide emotional content; words fill in the blanks with the essential details. If images only provide information, they have failed.

I thought the disturbing photographs of the severed hand andthe man jumping to his death provided the viewers with some sense of the absurdity and horror of hijackers commandeering two airline jets and ramming them into the World Trade Center towers on a perfect autumn morning. The problem, as I see it, was not with publishing photographs such as these, but rather with how they were shown. Two thoughts: It was the close-up, tightly cropped, still, framed, ghoulish color of the severed hand and the lack of other details, background, or context that created a grotesque image instead of a tragic one. Visual storytelling is required by the photographer and in collaboration with the photo editor for the powerful content of disturbing images to come alive for readers and viewers. Running the images as part of a photo essay or in a sequence or layout of images would have provided a humanistic and emotional context for viewers to understand and comprehend such unfathomable disaster.

Many complained that the Daily News images were there for no other reason but “shock value.” However, the history of photojournalism and documentary film supports the showing of shocking images for reasons of social change and to raise public consciousness. For example, director Frederick Wiseman, in his film Titticut Follies, depicted the horrible conditions of a Massachusetts mental hospital, not for shock value but for exposing the horrible inhumanity and neglect that existed in that institution. I recalled the Susan Meiselas image of a rotting body she photographed while covering the revolution in Nicaragua. Consider this photograph. The body part–backbone and bloated legs– included as part of a green mountainous landscape–lay there still as a rock or tree. Her choice of framing, inclusion of landscape, and considerable space around the body, as well as the precise distance and angle of view, made all the difference. Meiselas made more than a photograph. She made a visual statement, one that expressed the reality of the situation and the horror of inhumanity in times of war. The photograph, although gruesome, was made more accessible to the viewer because of the photographer’s visual statement and that it was placed in the larger context of a photo essay.

Still, some editors believe they must protect the public from disturbing photos. The viewers I have spoken to want to know, to see, and to experience history, however vicariously, however terrifying it might be. Some friends have asked, “What’s missing?” They wondered aloud, “Where are the pictures?” “Are the most powerful pictures being held for some future use?”

The metaphor of missing pictures was starkly felt today as I read the story of families without bodies to bury. People yearn to feel deeply about this tragedy and to somehow match up the images with what they have read, imagined, and know must be true. Editors have seen the most gruesome pictures and their decisions to be sensitive, i.e., withhold them from the public, cannot but be influenced by this cumulative exposure.

For editors to commit to showing, with mindfulness, compassion, and intelligence, the gritty reality of this disaster would provide affirmation and could act as a catalyst to help people recover and get on with their lives. Think about how visual stories can be told, not how pictures can be made to fit to illustrate a text piece. It is the visual stories that have staying power.

Patt Blue is a photographer and photographic educator at the International Center of Photography in New York City.