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The delicate handling of the images of war



News photographs come and go. Here's a mayoral candidate voting. Here's a tennis player kissing a trophy. Here's the president giving a speech. But two recent front-page images in The Times, both related to the deadly crisis in Syria, were something far more powerful. Appearing exactly two weeks apart, they were such memorable, telling images that they deserve some attention here. The first, had a caption that read: "In Damascus, the bodies of people who Syrian rebels and supporters say were killed on Wednesday in a government attack."

Shrouded in white and unmarked by blood, at least four of the bodies are those of children. The one in the centre is a baby. And the accompanying article notes the "tell-tale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury." The photograph was displayed boldly, across four columns at the top of the front page.

Michele McNally, the assistant managing editor in charge of photography, told me that she considered many alternatives before recommending this one to the top editors who accepted it.

She also spent time "heavily scrutinising" the photographs that were becoming available after the poison-gas attack, checking and comparing to see if anything appeared to be staged or altered. Many of the early ones were from citizen journalists; later "very credible photographers starting sending, as they got on site."

Before making a decision on which photograph to recommend, she used a tried-and-true method of determining how it would appear: printing out the photograph at the size it would appear on the page, and taping it onto an actual front page.

McNally describes herself as "by no means conservative" when it comes to choosing photographs. She looks for "emotional content — something that affects you." This photograph, shot by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters, certainly does that.

President Obama evoked images like this one when he spoke to the nation: "The images from this massacre are sickening. Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath." Rallying support for a possible American strike against Syria, he urged citizens to look at them.

But presidents don't always want people to see images of the dead. The first Bush administration, for example, began a ban on photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base that was lifted, after 18 years, in 2009. And it's impossible to imagine Obama urging Americans to scrutinise images of the victims of American drone strikes, which also have included children.

Last year, when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in Libya, The Times kept a photo of the unconscious and dying ambassador on its Web site — even after a request from the State Department to remove it — but stopped short of using such a photo in the next day's newspaper.

The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, told me that The Times tends not to show photographs of dead American soldiers, partly because it never wants to make public the news of a death that the family may not yet know about. I also know that many readers find graphic photographs of foreigners far easier to take than those of Americans.

The second front-page Syria photo showed Syrian government soldiers, trussed and lying face down, just before being executed by rebels. It was a screen shot from a video obtained by The Times.

The reporter on the accompanying story, C.J. Chivers, a former Marine and a Pulitzer-winning war correspondent, told me that the video was intended as a fund-raising tool for the rebels. Writing about it and showing it to the public "made people see the complexity of Syria," he said.

"It helped people realize that the public narratives were incomplete."

After misunderstanding information provided by the video's source, The Times originally reported that the video was made in April of this year; it later corrected the record to say that it was from the spring of 2012.

The story, which led the paper, and the photograph, displayed over five columns, might have been treated with less prominence if the correct timing had been known.

McNally described the photo as one that is "totally important and emotionally ridden," but that "doesn't take you over the edge." The video appeared on The Times' Web site, carrying a warning about its violent nature. Nevertheless, it was edited to go black as the gunshots were fired. We hear but do not see that violence.

Some readers complained, calling it censorship. Editors constantly make decisions about what to include and what to leave out — the judicious cropping of a Boston Marathon bombing photo of badly wounded Jeff Bauman was one example. 

Images of war matter. Some highly emotional photographs from Vietnam — the brutal execution of a Vietcong guerrilla, a Vietnamese girl burned by napalm — brought home the horror in a way that words never could. The same has been true more recently; think of the charred corpses of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Falluja, Iraq.

Now Syria. These two images are capable of changing the narrative, possibly affecting the course of history. That's all the more reason to handle them, and others, as thoughtfully and with as much awareness as possible. And to remember that, powerful as they are, they are only pieces of the emerging truth.

 The New York Times News Service


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