Photographic morality.

Sometimes it's a tough call being a photographer.

Frank Hurley was the official photographer on Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. When Shackleton's ship sank, crushed by the Antarctic icepack, the crew set off towards the open sea, hauling lifeboats over the ice. It was their only way out, but immensely difficult and dangerous.

As they laboured towards safety, some of them cursed Hurley as he took photographs. Why wasn't he lending his weight with the hauling?

Why? Because he was doing his job. He had been hired as the expedition photographer and, if he'd turned to hauling with the rest we would never have known what trials these men went through. We would never have had images like these. We may not have fully appreciated how remarkable Shackleton's achievement was - getting everyone home alive.

Now fast-forward to 14 August 2009 and an even more thorny problem. In Afghanistan an Associated Press photographer, Julie Jacobsen, is crouched behind a mud wall and under fire. She takes a photograph of a US Marine, dying in agony.

That's her job.

But ... then ... when she's done her job, and filed the photo, should it be published?

Apparently the young Marine's family did not want this, though they were not specifically asked.

The US Government did not want the image published either, but their reasons for this may well have been different from those of the family.

Of course, the family's wishes carry huge weight. But war is a violent, bloody, terrifying, messy, brutal affair. It has been all too easy for it to be sanitised from a distance (Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori).

The publication of this photograph presents a harsh and uncompromising truth about war. It will make some people realise exactly what it means - there's no glory. It is not sweet and fitting to die for one's country, and never has been.

Should that - bringing home the truth - override the wishes of the family?

And is this Marine's tragic death given more meaning by the fact that, through the photograph, it will touch tens of thousands of people rather than just his comrades, family and friends?

Should the photograph have been published?

It's a tough call.

No comments: