Death has long been seen as the ultimate equalizer, yet its depiction in the news takes shape across unequal parameters. About To Die: How News Images Move the Public tells the story of one kind of news image that appears when depicting death is untenable or difficult. It charts what I call the "about to die image" - news pictures showing impending death rather than death's unfolding. Surfacing in patterned ways over the past two and half centuries of U.S. journalism, pictures of people about to die raise fundamental questions about the relationship between images and words in the news, about how much visual information is necessary to know what an image depicts, and about what news images ultimately are for.
Though much of news involves death, its depiction rattles both those tasked with making decisions about which images to show and those seeking visual documentation of the news. While journalism's front spaces and pages regularly fill with detailed verbal accounts of the deaths associated with unsettled and difficult events, the accompanying pictures of corpses, body parts, and human gore tend to get filtered from public view. Questions persist about which deaths should be seen, how and where to show them, for how long and with which degree of prominence, and they are rarely settled in facile or uniform ways. Debates, hand-wringing and calls for decency intensify as those making the call about images decide what to do. Their decisions, taken alongside those of social media, members of militias, human rights workers and policymakers who actively push for and against an image's display without journalistic involvement, are further complicated as an image travels globally: the image that sits well in the West may not be shown at all elsewhere, and vice versa.
The about to die image offers one solution to the discomfort and squeamishness raised by pictures of death in the news. Offering an escape hatch both for journalists who are reticent about showing gruesome photos and for viewers who are not comfortable with their depiction, it's as if these images do the manual labor of depiction without getting anyone's hands dirty. In their most general parameters, images of impending death freeze action before the final moment of death and focus on the human anguish that precedes it - Saddam Hussein stoically accepting a hangman's noose around his neck, tourists and townspeople running from a monster tidal wave lapping at their backs, Vietnamese villagers huddled in abject fear before being shot to death. Incomplete and suggestive, these pictures do not necessarily show evidence of the death that follows. Forcing us to complete a death not shown, they also encourage many directions in an image's interpretation - refuting death, debating its particulars, providing multiple and erroneous contexts for its interpretation. As I write this, pictures of the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are all over the news; though pictures of his actual corpse did appear, the video sequences of his moments before death are being debated intensely, prompting official inquiries into what happened.
What do pictures of people about to die look like? Segmenting a sequence of action at its most pregnant moment, they come in three main forms, all suggestive but different in terms of how much information they provide: Pictures of certain death show us people facing their own demise -Lee Harvey Oswald as he winces in pain from an unexpected bullet or 12 year old Palestinian Mohammad Aldura, clutching his father in abject fear as both are riddled with cross fire during the Intifada. Pictures of possible death remind us of deaths that are more widespread than what is being depicted, where we recognize impending death even when we do not know if the depicted people actually die - an unnamed starving Sudanese child hugging the drought-ridden ground while a vulture awaits its prey or the blank frontal stares of anonymous victims of the Khmer Rouge lining up for archival headshots before they are killed. Pictures of presumed death show us the structures, landscapes and physical devastation in which undepicted people die - the towers of 9/11 or buildings crumpled from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In each case, the pictures engage us through our emotions, imagination and recognition of the contingency through which they relay their messages. Forcing us to consider what happens after the camera is turned off, they are fashioned with a moveable standard of squeamishness that is regularly altered to fit the moral, political and technological constraints of the moment.
Images of people about to die foster a different kind of public engagement with the wars, terrorism, natural disasters, crimes, technological accidents and assassinations that they depict. Where images of dead bodies often push viewers away, creating distance and objectification, images of people about to die draw viewers in, generating empathy, subjective involvement and discussion. Thus, we engage with the about to die image regardless of how much we understand what is being shown and regardless of how truthful, accurate or complete the image might be. Such engagement does not readily cohere with the much-touted rational, full and reasoned record associated with journalism, a record that we expect it to provide particularly in unsettled and difficult times.
My purpose in writing About To Die was to give a more sustained pause to the role of images in structuring our responses to the events that populate the front spaces and pages of our news record. I have tried to show that images force a different engagement with the news - what I call the "as if" of news relay rather than journalism's "as is" record of reality. The about to die image suggests that news pictures are more than just carriers of reasoned understanding; they transport suggestion alongside evidence, emotions alongside reason, contingency alongside certainty, imagination alongside truth-value, extra-rational meaning alongside rational understanding.
This fuller set of impulses calls on us to rethink our assumptions about how the public sphere works, particularly when we need to respond to the kinds of unsettled and difficult events that these pictures depict. Given that we turn to the visual increasingly when times are unclear, frightening or just plain hard, we need to do a better job of giving images their due in shaping a record of our world. My hope is that About To Die has begun that journey for us.