In a report last week that broke news about U.S. Special Forces in Somalia killing over a dozen civilians, The Daily Beast used a header image that depicted the corpses of four victims. While their faces were blurred out, their bloodied bodies were still visible. Later in the article, the photo of another victim’s corpse was shown (his head was also excluded from the frame).
The use of graphic images is, of course, not restricted to this one story. The use of these kinds of photos is seen across news outlets and social media platforms, particularly with regard to coverage on Yemen, Libya, Syria, and many other places enduring political and humanitarian crises. It is generally prevalent in depictions of violence to black and brown people. In fact, I wrote about this issue a few months ago in response to the controversy at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year, where a painting of the disfigured body of Emmett Till, the young black boy brutally murdered in the United States in the 1950s, was displayed.
The continuous usage of photos and video footage of the dead bodies of black and brown victims of violence is dehumanizing. It treats these individuals as faceless numbers devoid of personalities or a real, meaningful existence. These images also bolster the notion that starvation, torture, and armed violence is a normal part of daily life for black and brown victims.
For example, many of the images accompanying reporting on refugees and migrants being forced into slavery in Libya are of humiliation and torture. Almost all the coverage about Yemen’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, which is being caused by Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade on the country, is accompanied by photos of emaciated, malnourished children. While some may argue that these photos are meant to illicit compassion, and inspire viewers to take action to stop the suffering, they do more to desensitize audiences. Saturating our newsfeeds, these images reinforce a discourse about the suffering subjects of a crisis that is also decontextualized from its political causes. As Shimrit Lee, a scholar on visual culture and militarism, wrote in Warscapes in 2015, “such visual appeals to compassion completely disengage realities of power that underlie the horror.”
Newsrooms have a responsibility to select photos that maintain the humanity of their subjects and do not divorce their oppression from political realities, especially when the stories involve humanitarian crises or sustained oppression. Photos of people being humiliated, tortured, or starved, who are unlikely to have given permission for their photos to be taken or used, is both unethical and fosters a discourse in which black and brown suffering is exploitable and consumable.