In my opinion, the one of the most important challenges that the global nature of photography poses is the inconsistency in censorship of graphic images between traditional media such as television or newspapers and new media which is accessed via the internet.
There is a phrase in journalism called the “breakfast test.” The thinking behind this is that if a reader will be repulsed by the images contained in the newspaper whilst sitting at the breakfast table, then those images should not appear on the front page, or in some cases anywhere at all in the publication. However, anyone who then conducts a search on the internet can see these uncensored graphic images from a multitude of sources. Young audiences or the “YouTube” generation in particular are exposed daily to graphic visual images. This has resulted in younger consumers becoming desensitised to the graphic nature of the images.
But should newspapers and other media censor what they believe is suitable for us to view? Should the harsh realities of conflict and disasters be hidden from us because someone else deems the images to be too graphic for us to deal with? With the availability of the full graphic images now available just a click away, should the ‘breakfast test’ be considered no longer valid?
Had the media and army not censored images of the US army in Vietnam taken by combat photographer Ronald L. Haeberle, the war in the country may have ceased quicker. Haeberle used 2 cameras to record the actions of U.S troops. Images taken on his army issued camera (in black and white) were either censored before publication or chosen because they did not depict any Vietnamese casualties when published. This gave the American public a false impression of the war. Haeberle also took colour photos on his own camera. He did not submit these to his superiors, but rather kept them and later sold them to Life magazine, which did not censor them.
One particular image, And Babies, depicted about a dozen dead and partially naked Vietnamese women and babies. They lay in contorted positions, strewn across a dirt track. They were massacred by US troops on March 16, 1968 during the My Lai Massacre. This image is now iconic, having been used as an anti war message by the Art Workers Coalition.
This image changed ordinary Americans views on the war and was used extensively in anti-war protests. Had other images like this been shown earlier in this conflict, could these lives have been saved?
More recently, when the Boston Marathon bombings were reported, newspapers used a picture of a man being rushed into hospital. An internet search for images of the event shows the image less cropped. The man’s legs were in pieces. It is a tough image to view. Newspaper and magazine editors made the decision to publish a cropped version without the true extent of the gore getting in the way of communicating the need for urgency of action and the tragedy of the event.
A photograph can document reality in an instant. Documentary images such as Haeberle’s can make waves of impact in a very short time. The photographs offer a way of truth telling in times of conflict or disasters. They expose difficult and often disturbing scenes that can raise the consumer’s awareness of the issues facing the world around us. These issues include famine and death; drug abuse and prostitution; people trafficking and the refugee crisis. This awareness can be used to ultimately change the public’s opinion on government policies and reactions.
My concern is that with censorship of the images published by reputable newspapers and media outlets, and the uncensored images that appear all over the internet, will the consumer look for the more graphic images online or trust that the photo editors are presenting us the whole story? Journalists now need to reconsider the appropriateness of the ‘breakfast test’ in today’s more accessible internet environment. Conflicts should not go undocumented and atrocities should be depicted. Maybe then more emphasis and support will be given to negotiating peaceful solutions to these conflicts.