The image is arresting: Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, lie facedown along the banks of the Rio Grande, her arm draped around his neck. The family drowned on their journey from El Salvador while trying to cross the Mexican border to apply for asylum in the United States.
The moment, captured by photojournalist Julia Le Duc, was published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada and distributed widely by the Associated Press on June 25. It quickly revived a long-standing debate surrounding tragic images: Was this horrifying scene a necessary depiction of the reality at the border, where 181 people have died as of early July, according to the United Nations’ Institute of Migration? Or was it an insensitive display of dead bodies that ultimately would not lead to concrete action for those most affected by the crisis being covered?
Major outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal ran the image, deeming it of journalistic value. But some critics, including Teju Cole for the New York Times Magazine and investigative reporter Aura Bogado, suggested that black and brown victims of death and suffering are more readily portrayed in images compared to white victims, raising questions about the intent behind the photographs.
More locally, the Kensington Beach Instagram account, in which a Kensington resident shares images of people in the neighborhood using drugs, has caused controversy by potentially exposing the identities of people struggling with addiction in order to document the drug crisis.
The Inquirer turned to local journalists — a photographer and an editor — to weigh in: Do these photos of suffering do more to enlighten, or to exploit?
Photographs of suffering affirm what makes us all human
I could describe to you the scene in Matamoros, Mexico, where Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Angie Valeria, were found lying face down June 24.
I could tell you how, surrounded by empty beer cans, the little girl was still tucked tightly inside her father’s shirt, her lifeless arm caressing his neck, a waterlogged diaper bulging under her red pants.
Or I could show you a photograph of this moment.
Perhaps it will disturb you.
But as a photojournalist, I think the picture of two Salvadorans who drowned while seeking asylum in America is worth seeing.
Why did this image trigger more vehement responses than recent written reports of other migrants’ deaths? Perhaps because photographs wield an intrinsic power absent from words. Seeing is not just believing but also knowing. Words can define what human rights are, but “what photographers can do,” the critic Susie Linfield writes, “is to show how those without such rights look, and what the absence of such rights does to a person.”
» READ MORE: ‘They died in each other’s arms'
Images of trauma often generate short-lived outpourings of empathy, followed by (rarely fruitful) pleas for political change before “compassion fatigue” sets in. But photojournalism need not measure success by the amount of pity produced or public policies changed. The photo of Martínez and his daughter is meaningful even on an evidentiary level to counter charges of “fake news!” about danger at the border.
A common refrain when news outlets publish images of trauma is that such pictures dehumanize their subjects. In Philadelphia, this debate has involved the popular — though not journalistic — Kensington Beach Instagram account.
But a picture is a reflection of reality, not the terrible reality itself. Who really dehumanized the people in these images? The photographer, or the American government backing a Salvadoran military that committed human rights abuses during the nation’s civil war? The current U.S. administration limiting asylum claims at the border, labeling families fleeing violence and poverty an “invasion”? The pharmaceutical companies that profited from the widespread use of opioid medications while downplaying their addictiveness?
Knowledge is power, but we will never know more by seeing less.
Rather than afflict their subjects, photographs of suffering affirm what makes us all human: our ultimate mortality. It is no more degrading to make and view these pictures than it is dignifying to ignore them.
A project like Kensington Beach plays a complicated role in its community. Its creator, Mike Coyle, is a longtime Kensington resident upset at the suffering in his neighborhood. Though he doesn’t have the power to solve the crisis alone, he feels compelled to bear witness to it.
That a picture deserves to be seen, however, is not license to publish it irresponsibly. Media outlets should warn viewers about disturbing images and publish them with the requisite information to understand what is shown. Graphic pictures shouldn’t be carelessly splashed across social media without context. Kensington Beach’s followers consciously choose to see disturbing imagery on their feeds but could benefit from more context about what they’re seeing.
News organizations must also acknowledge the double standard in which we are more likely to show pictures of dead black or brown bodies than white ones. We must establish thoughtful, racially equitable guidelines about when to publish graphic photos and be more willing to show images of white victims.
We need more journalism, more reporting, more pictures — of suffering, of joy, and everything in between. Knowledge is power, but we will never know more by seeing less.
Tim Tai is a staff photographer at The Inquirer.
Sometimes public knowledge is not worth the risk to those photographed
A few weeks ago, I had to call an ambulance to Kensington Avenue near Somerset Street. A man who was sick asked me to call 911 because his feet were too infected for him to walk. His wounds were wrapped in bloody, pus-filled gauze. I could smell the infections from 10 feet away.
Due to our country’s drug, health, and economic policies, those experiencing behavioral-health issues like addiction are forced into the public eye every day. The same day I called that ambulance, I also watched a distressed man strip near-nude on that block and heard a woman cry out for Narcan across the street.
Over the years, photographs of individuals like the ones I’ve described have come to represent drug addiction in the United States. Every social issue has photos of individuals suffering as icons: dead kids at borders symbolize worldwide refugee crises, “the vulture and the little girl” represented famine, and “the Napalm girl” symbolized the horrors of war.
It’s impossible to argue that all images of human suffering — like Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria — are exploitative and should not see the light of day. But I do believe all photographers should question their motives for capturing these images. The benchmark for publication should be that the benefits of publishing photos clearly outweigh the risks for those portrayed in the frames.
As a journalism professor, I appreciate the complexity of balancing the public’s need for information while minimizing harm caused to those featured in published works. That’s where the evaluation of a photo’s exploitative versus enlightening characteristics comes in.
Photographers should question their motives for capturing these images.
Not once did I think to photograph the individual for whom I called an ambulance or anyone else I saw suffering. Those felt like private moments, like those our society affords to individuals with what are commonly treated as dignified disabilities and diseases, that happened to occur in public.
People with cancer, autism, or ALS aren’t pushed to the streets in high concentrations, nor do they often draw a crowd of professional or smartphone paparazzi. It’s public perception that addiction is a moral failing that drives the belief that individuals suffering from it don’t deserve similar privacy.
As a result, social media gets flooded with photos and videos of people in addiction on Philadelphia’s streets. Recently, the Kensington Beach Instagram account — which has 30,000 followers and is filled with photos and videos of identifiable people using drugs — was lauded for “raising awareness.” A similar Facebook post of amateur photographs was shared nearly 90,000 times.
The harms caused to the individuals in these photos are undeniable. Almost immediately after the amateur photographer posted her pictures to Facebook, someone identified a pregnant woman in one image by posting a screenshot of her Facebook page. An angry mob followed, sharing her name and picture with comments like, "Disgusting piece of sh*t. People like this don't deserve children. Make this dirtball go viral" — which she did.
Parents of individuals featured in these photos were also upset. At least one mother asked the amateur photographer to remove a picture of her son. With advances in facial recognition technology, imagine recovering on a personal or professional level while still having a photo of you in active addiction plastered across the internet.
While the public deserves to know how policies cause suffering, when choosing whether to snap a photo, photographers must ask: Do the benefits of enlightening the public outweigh the risk of preventing those featured from recovering?
If the answer is no, put the camera down.
Jillian Bauer-Reese is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and the editor of Kensington Voice, a community-driven newsroom.
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