Archive for September 12th, 2004

Should we have looked away?

Thoughtful piece in the Observer Review section about the fallout from the Beslan school massacre… One line in particular… Picture editors scanned a gusher of digital images, and made impromptu choices about which incident to pick out of the affray and what meaning to attach to it. No one had time to wonder about the ethics or even the aesthetics of what they were doing.. Maybe?

There were some truly shocking images form the news wires as the siege came to an end. The worst being a couple of frames showing a distraught mother lifting up tarps over charred bodies looking for her child. There were over 200 in a makeshift morgue. Could you imagine even looking at one? That really upset me… afterward.

While the story was breaking, aesthetics were, I’m ashamed to say, at the forefront of my mind. I was looking for which image is going to ‘work’ and create an effective piece of editorial, not the suffering unfolding in front of me. As a picture editor, watching a story unfold via news wires is a disjointed yet rich experience. See a lot goes onto the wires that doesn’t make it into the press, you sometimes see the ‘before’s and the afters’ to an event, the wrong angle shots, the ‘also rans’ and stuff to shocking to print. In this case the town of Beslan assembled in facets on my monitor, unfiltered and raw.

It was the same for the Madrid train bomb too. When you’re ‘doing it’ you sort of get this zoning effect, you make instant snap decisions, you become ultra focused, only afterward when the adrenaline is curdling in your system to you actually reflect on the images; that that group of pixels you optimised was a human being.

There was a an accompanying piece from Balkans vet Andrew Testa summing up why we need these images, and the effects it has on the photographer who’s actually there. Both pieces come down to a: should we see these sorts of images, and b: should the photographer get ‘involved’?

In answer to a: There’s a market for it.. even a print market at around €1000 a pop, from War Photo Ltd. Testa’s own work is there too. Suffering sells, but perhaps only of the right sort? And it doesn’t get any better than instant, unplanned death in on focused area at the hands of terrorists rather than say, the deaths of 400+ people over two months at the hand of mother nature.

In answer to b: I was once on a student portfolio judging panel with Paul Lowe, who’s worked in Chechnya, the Balkans and other hot spots around the world. In the boozer afterward I asked him about how he coped. “It’s a bit like the end of Blade Runner, ‘I’ve seen things…'” was all he’d say. As for getting involved, there’s a piece in Russell Miller’s book ‘Magnum’ where Lowe describes the aftermath of a Hutu massacre by Government troops in Rwanda.
It was very chaotic, there were a lot of injured and wounded… I felt I ought to help but I was only a journalist and I knew it was my duty to make pictures that would record the event. And anyway, what can one person do? A lot of babies had been on their mothers backs, and the mothers had died, but the babies were still alive. I went out with one of the aid workers to collect these little children. It was a terrible experience. One off the doctors at the camp said “Look you’ve got to stop bringing these people in because we’ve got no where to put them. If you bring any more they’re going to get dysentery and they’re going to die”. I literally had two babies in my arms at this point. I had to put them down by the entrance to the camp. There was nothing I could do… It was very very harrowing. I was in quite a state when I got back home.


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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
September 2004
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