Just a few weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, photojournalist Lynsey Addario captured a photo of a
civilian casualty that spoke to the atrocity of the war. While located at an evacuation route in Irpin, she witnessed the death of a family killed by a mortar. Instinctively she began documenting the horrific scene.
Addario took photos from various angles, so the editors would have options. Even though she had doubts about whether it would be published, one photo ended up above the fold on the front page of The New York Times and was widely shared across social media. “I was really surprised to hear that they would be publishing the photograph,” Addario later said on an episode of the outlet’s podcast, The Daily. “And the photo they chose was the image where some of the faces were visible.”
“The image was so exceptionally graphic that the conversation was elevated to a high level [among editors] fairly quickly,” explained Times Director of Photography Meaghan Looram to The Washington Post. “But the sentiment was universal: this was a photograph that the world needed to see to understand what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.”
Among those who saw that startling image: Serhiy Perebyinis, the husband and father of some of those pictured. It was how he learned of their deaths.
Addario later met with Perebyinis to learn more about his family. During their conversation she asked whether he would have given permission to run the photo if they could have gotten in touch with him first. He said yes.
Addario spoke openly on The Daily about the conflicting feelings she experienced while weighing whether to photograph the victims’ deaths and her responsibility to document what was happening. “I think it’s important, as devastating as it is, to be present for those moments and to document them. And in fact, the image has resonated with a lot of people. And it’s been brought up in Congress. It’s been talked about around the world as proof that civilians are being targeted intentionally by the
Other photojournalists’ reactions to the photo ran the gamut, from agreeing to publishing the photo to feeling it disrespected the dead, and everything in between. Lynsey Weatherspoon, an Atlanta-based photographer, found the picture to be troubling. “I just think about my family,” she said. “What if someone made this photograph of a family member of mine and I wasn’t aware of it?”
Although Weatherspoon said personally she would avoid taking photos that show the faces of the deceased, she respected Addario’s reasoning and reflection of the moment on the podcast. “To hear Lynsey talk about why she decided to make that photograph put a bit more context to it.” But Weatherspoon added she fears some might miss that broader context if they just came across the picture on social media.
On the other hand, Ken Light, a freelance photographer and professor of photojournalism at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, applauded the action. “My initial reactions: This is a horrific moment of war and the bravery of The New York Times to publish it on the front page and let people see the tragedy and the horror of war that so many times is hidden away,” he said.
The standard used to be the breakfast-table test to gauge how upsetting a photo would be while consumers were eating breakfast, but times have changed, Light added. “When it comes to war, I feel pretty strongly that witnessing war, people are so far away from it and untouched by it and they don’t — there’s part of them that doesn’t want to know what’s going on. So the photo is real and the photo really captures the moment of a tragedy.”
Addario’s photo is not the first or last graphic image to surface from war. And there’s no doubt that such photos have helped define these horrific events. Many can vividly recall iconic photos of other tragedies — such as the 2015 photos of a drowned migrant toddler (Alan Kurdi) in Greece taken by Nilüfer Demir and the image of a man falling from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks photographed by Richard Drew. These photos have been at the center of debates about whether they should have been published at all, highlighting the difficult decisions photojournalists have to grapple with when taking graphic photos.
One of the main pillars of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics is to minimize harm. It asks journalists to weigh the consequences of publishing and consider the long-term implications of the information once it’s out in the world. The National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics highlights similar principles. It states, “Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.” But there’s no black-and-white answer when faced with such situations in real life to decide when something rises to the level of justifiable.
Quill asked photojournalists about their personal ethics.
Kirsten Luce, a Brooklyn-based photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and National Geographic, covers immigration on the U.S./Mexico border. She said she wears a visible press pass while reporting. “I think that it gives a clearer understanding to the people in front of my lens on why I’m present and it also separates me from the authorities or from the clergy or whoever else might be in the area.”
She identifies herself whenever she’s taking a photo and focuses on body language. Luce said it’s important that a subject is comfortable and open to being photographed. If they seem uncomfortable, she moves on. The people being photographed at the border are often in vulnerable situations, so Luce said she doesn’t want to traumatize anyone further. “I know my rights as a photojournalist and the legality of taking photos, but I also always try to be human.”
Alan Chin, a photographer, author and adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said he gives individuals more consideration as opposed to larger institutions when he is on the scene to photograph a tragedy. “If it’s just an accident, if it’s a private tragedy, if it’s something that impacts only those immediate people and their immediate community, I’m going to be more willing to respect whatever their wishes are — including if those wishes are for me to pull back,” he said.
Chin added he believes strongly in holding institutions to a higher level of scrutiny. “If [a death] is a result of actions stemming from a larger actor, an institutional actor, then I am most inclined to push my own case.”
Savannah Dodd, founder and director of the Photography Ethics Centre, launched an initiative in March 2022, encouraging photographers to explore the topic of ethics and what it means to them. The campaign asks photojournalists to create their own
statement of ethics and publicly post it to their website to set an example, encourage transparency and foster accountability.
Dodd’s own personal statement of ethics focuses on dignity, respect, responsibility, environmentalism and accountability. It includes considering who she is as a person, what matters to her, the goals of her photography and reflecting on her work and acknowledging things she’s done in the past that she wouldn’t do now. With each project, Dodd noted that she asks herself who she has responsibility to and how it is related to the principles of her ethics.
The statement is posted on her website. As of October 2022, about 40 photographers and four organizations had committed to the pledge, according to the Photography Ethics Centre website. Dodd also encourages photographers to research ethics, talk to others and be open to feedback to understand where there may be gaps.
“It’s really important that we think about these things before we’re in a situation because it can help us make better decisions when we’re faced with [tough choices] because we’ve already done the work of thinking about what are our principles, and what are our red lines,” she said. “That can help prepare us and make us better equipped to navigate really complicated things.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, when pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Victor Blue was on the scene photographing. He was inside on the House of Representatives side and witnessed the moment when Capitol Police officer Lt. Michael Byrd shot Ashli Babbitt. Blue photographed Babbitt as she died from the injuries. The image captures the
moment pressure was applied to Babbitt’s neck to try and stop the bleeding.
No one would pick the photo up. “No major news outlet ran that photograph, and they all wrote stories about Ashli Babbitt,” Blue said, noting that many opted to show the video and blur Babbitt’s face. He still stands behind the argument that the photo is valuable to mark that moment in history, but it’s an argument he’s ultimately lost with most editors.
“I was very frustrated and I felt at the time like, okay, this is the double standard in practice,” Blue said. “This is a young white woman in the middle of the Capitol and they won’t show the picture because I thought they were afraid to offend the sensibilities of their audiences.” He added, “Now that picture is kind of robbed from our collective memory of that day.”
Blue said he’s sympathetic to arguments about whether to publish graphic imagery, but he doesn’t believe the answer is to restrict it. He disagrees with practices of blurring faces in photos. “My personal outlook is that if a photo needs to be blurred, don’t use it.”
Brian Frank has tried a different approach. In a recent piece for ProPublica on the link between human trafficking and cyber scamming, Frank took anonymous portraits of the subject “Yuen,” whose identity was concealed. Frank also
included Yuen throughout the process. The final published photos for the project were vetted and approved by “Yuen” to help determine what photos he was okay with prior to publication.
“His safety was of paramount concern, as he had a history of suicide attempts and was making himself very vulnerable by sharing this story and being photographed,” Frank said. “To him, the one thing he could do that would give him a small bit of power back was to share his story so others wouldn’t have the same awful thing happen to them.”
Frank knows this is a practice that some publications are uncomfortable with, but he said it’s important to empower participants. “I do think there’s a discussion that needs to be had in general about how dangerous it is to show people’s identity,” Frank added.
Clearly there’s no blanket advice when it comes to taking graphic photos, and one of the most challenging parts is that “the right answer” isn’t obvious. And sometimes there will never be clarity.
While Kael Alford was covering the war in Iraq, she spent a lot of time photographing in emergency rooms because her access was limited in most other locations. She recalled a family that was rushed in after an airstrike. Some of the siblings had already passed, and the mother was dying. In this chaotic moment, another one of the sons, who was about 12 years old, stared at Alford as she decided whether to take the photo. “So I took that picture and I published it, and to this day, do I feel entirely peaceful about it? No.”
Alford told Quill she still wonders on such a tragic day of his life, if this boy will always remember a photographer taking his photo. “There are a few pictures that always kind of stay with you and haunt you, like, was that the right choice?”
Feature photo: A Border Patrol officer processes groups of migrants shortly after they crossed the Rio Grande River, in Roma, Texas, and then turned themselves in. Roma has become the busiest crossing point for migrants in Texas. This woman and child are from Honduras. (Photo by Kirsten Luce/The New York Times)
Carlett Spike is a New Jersey–based writer and editor with work published in Prevention and AARP, among others.