When pictures become news

April 19, 2004

Newsdesigner shows the Seattle Times Sunday front page. I’m guessing it took the editors at the Times about three thousandths of a second to decide on their lead art.

The objective description: some people in an airplane’s cargo hold tend to a bunch of boxes decorated by American flags. No drama, no emotion, no action, just men at work. It does have nice colors, though, which makes it a candidate for any page where the press configuration allows four-color. From a purely photographic standpoint, it’s nothing special.

This is one of those rare photos whose primary value is what it doesn’t show: the dead American soliders inside those boxes. You don’t have to see mutilated corpses to understand the cost of war. There’s plenty to see within that airplane’s fuselage.

So, yeah, it’s a storytelling photo. But what’s the story? That we’re shipping our dead home by airplane? Everybody who cares already knows that. That our soldiers have been dying in a war? Given the hornet’s nest they’re serving in, it could be argued that the biggest news is not how many are dead, but how many are still alive.

The Times’ editors provided all the standard “hey, this is news, it’s a compelling image” reasoning, which was true to the extent I’ve outlined here, but they’re telling only the side of the story which reflects most kindly on them.

There’s another story here that isn’t so high-minded. It’s about how we go with a photo like that because we have it and we’re reasonably certain nobody else does. And because we know the authorities don’t want us to publish it. The Pentagon/White House have forbidden us from taking pictures of coffins arriving home from the war, which instantly puts the thought in my head, “I’m running the first good flag-draped coffin pic I get, just to show those bastards they can’t tell me what pictures I put in my paper.”

It’s true that the picture is a scoop in the sense that (I presume) it’s the first planeload-of-coffins pic to land in the Times hands. But it’s not really news that this is happening — it only becomes news when they have a picture of it.

This will always happen, it’s the nature of the business. Still, I think people will respect us a lot more if we dump the pieties and just tell ’em: “look, it was a great scoop, and you’d have done the same if you’d been in my shoes.” Otherwise we sound like politicians making the usual empty pronouncements.

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