The photography that has been most on my mind this week has come from Gaza. It has made me think about the experience of looking at disturbing imagery. As a picture editor I look through a lot of photographs each day: by the time I leave work at 7pm I have generally seen approximately 25,000. And on any given day, that feed – which features everything imaginable, and unimaginable – there will be a number of upsetting images.
We view the images that are sent to the Guardian from agencies and individual photographers as a grid of thumbnails. It is a jumble of pictorial juxtapositions. I start scrolling through them at midnight, saving anything that catches my eye. I am looking at formal qualities – composition, light, colour, dynamism – as well as subject matter – the people or events that are in the news. These are all things you learn to recognise from a five-centimetre wide rectangle.
Monday morning was fairly typical, a mixture of entertainment from the night before and pictures taken over the weekend. But slowly images from the protests in Gaza against started to stream in. Protesters were reacting to the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, on the eve of the Nakba anniversary the following day. At first there were the images we have become used to, of Palestinian men in T-shirts and jeans throwing rocks and running through clouds of black smoke from burning tyres. But then as the day progressed, there were more and more images of injured people, then bodies being carried away. Over 50 Palestinians died on Monday, the deadliest day in years. The harrowing scenes we witnessed on our screens in the office in London were taken by photographers who were right in the middle of the chaos. Despite being press and wearing flak jackets, they were putting themselves in significant danger. Only last month Palestinian photographer Yasser Murtaja was shot dead covering demonstrations.
Over 1000 images were sent in from Gaza. The images of the protests and the injured appeared alongside others of Ivanka Trump, pristine and glamorous, surrounded by suited politicians and diplomats celebrating the opening of the embassy. The contrast was shocking. So instead of our standard single image on the front of Tuesday’s paper we had two. It was not the most elegant composition, but it was a bold statement that was impossible to misread.
It is surprising how many disturbing pictures you can look at before one jumps out and chills you to the bone. For me it tends to be when a child is involved and there are moments when I need to step away from the screen. It is rare for these images to be published, but there are cases, as with the picture of Alan Kurdi, when the significance of the image is so great that it has to be shared. We are all to some extent numbed to images of suffering, especially when we have seen a lot of pictures from an ongoing tragedy or conflict, but that is when I believe there is an argument for publishing something you would rather look away from. Sometimes we need to be woken up to what is happening. Needless to say there will be a serious discussion involving lots of people about the ethical questions around publishing such an image. When it comes to photographs of conflict we feel more justified in showing death, but people will always deserve privacy and respect. A public funeral may seem like a fair event to picture, but should we be distributing a dead person’s face around the world? Shouldn’t a family mourning the loss of a child in a morgue be allowed the privacy to do so? Equally though, an image of dead children, for example, can sometimes be seen as evidence of their being used as human shields. It is almost always a case of using your gut instinct and asking yourself if an image feels like an intrusion or a necessity. And how it might be interpreted – or misinterpreted – from a political perspective.
Discussion is important in figuring out how we should tell a story, but it is also important for us as a way of dealing with the images we look at. I am almost always working with another picture editor and we talk endlessly about the images we are looking at. It is impossible not to voice a reaction to something that grabs you. It is vital that we have strong reactions to images and aren’t just completely numbed to them, because we have to be able to put ourselves into the mind of the reader, coming to that one image afresh.