TBS Muse

Images of death: The photojournalists burden

With the images of Aylan Kurdi stark in our collective memory, we’re wondering what happens to the soul of those behind the camera.


Picture the scene: Buffeting wind distorting your senses, air blanketed by the smell of the sea, your hair lashed by the offshore breeze, the morning sun warm on your skin, while you labourously step through cold deep sand, your stomach rebelling in cold shock as your eyes focus on the vicious tableau we’re now all familiar with.

While Aylan’s photo sticks with us, we’re spared the sensory memories attached to it. The photographer who captured Aylan’s bitter epitaph, Nilufer Demir, said of taking the picture :

 “…it was the only thing I could do…I wanted to express his silent scream”

Ms Demir did just that, thereby defining the Syrian refugee’s plight. But by documenting the realities, at such a distance to touch what touched us, It must have left scars on her, scars much deeper than ours.

A sad fact, and a common theme among professional photojournalists. And while the career arcs may be as individual as those who capture the images, they are all united. Inorexibly tied to the horrors they document for better or worse, some guilted by their own inaction, some by the legacy of what their work has come to mean.

In 1993, South African photographer Kevin Carter captured his well publicised image of a vulture stalking its future prey, a horribly malnourished toddler during the Sudanese famine of that year. While the image was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, some questioned Carter for his perceived inaction in assisting the child. The question never left Carter, who was haunted; not only by the image captured, but the moving drama that continued to spool in his mind, before it overcame him in 1994.

Kevin Carter, his brilliance not denied, “carried the terror with him” as his father would later state, his son falling victim to a career charting the worst that humanity had to offer (Carter also extensively covered the violence of apartied South Africa).

Therein lies the issue. The helplessness they must endure, being able to witness, but unable to stop whatever is in motion, despite better judgement, or their baser human urges. All the photojournalist can seemingly do, is bring information to the reader, to allow them to make their own conclusions. Conclusions are subjective, however, and once where there may have been truth, may now be something else entirely.

Eddie Adams, the photojournalist behind in the “Saigon executioner” image from the Vietnam War, was also awarded the Pulitzer. However, Eddie’s personal legacy with that picture is a complicated one.

Watching the YouTube video of Eddie explaining the famous image, he sums up the situation via a related cliché from the executioner in the photo, that of “…he was doing his job, I was doing mine”. Which may been very well right. Not being there, I don’t know if that’s the truth.

All I have is my perception.

The man himself seems conflicted, torn apart by the photo. Perhaps (or perhaps not) by the bloodletting, or seemingly what it meant; but maybe in the years since, when perception has twisted the truth he once saw. Eddie, in the video, seems stuck there still, justifying the act, as perhaps he may have in the decades since, putting himself in the shoes of those in the frame, especially the executioner, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who Adams later felt guilty of “ruining his life”.

Only Eddie knew what the circumstances were on that day, but the power of the image drags our imagination, and allows us to make our own conclusions, planting our greys upon the black-and-white imagery.

From a dispassionate point-of-view, it could be argued that photojournalists prosper from the suffering of others, but subscribing to that thought process may make one miss the reasons why. While those immortalised in the frame are the victims, those behind the shutter are too. While the images they capture may redefine how we feel on an issue, they must too suffer the redefinition within, or as photojournalist James Natchwey put it:

“Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good…”




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  • Bronte O’Brien

    What a fucking divine snapshot (geddit) of this aspect (geddit) of photojournalism. Although the horrors and brutalities can be hard to digest, I’m glad there are people who continue to capture those corners of the world that we shouldn’t look away from. Too, the internet has truly centred us at an exciting time.