Death and the Media: 9-11 Photography: Identity and Otherness

Photography just like any other profession has the ethics that guide photographers in the course of their assignments. Per the moral theory by Kant, a decision or act should have a moral basis of moral imperatives which are not questionable. Those people should be making decisions while considering their duty and the rights of other people. On this note, a photographer believes that he has to report news however distasteful or damaging it might be. Another photographer might differ by believing that maintaining privacy by not taking photographs at a time of disaster or attack is an exceptional case and hence photography should not go on.

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This paper focuses on the photography that was undertaken in New York after the 9/11 world trade center terrorist attack. Several ethical issues have emerged from photography. Death is a very crucial event in the life of all human beings since time immemorial. The way the media handles matters o news concerning dead people and grief has ethical issues attached to it. For instance, the involvement of the cameramen if there is no one to assist victims is an important aspect in their profession that is concerned with ethics.

Death in the human mind presents a ferocious threat to any human being. The way death was represented in the photography of the disaster can be said to have gone against human culture. This is because death has been considered in history to be a transgression that tears man from his present life. It is argued that the present culture has limited the representation of death because of social reasons.

In the pictures of the disaster, people were meant to see what they deserve to see.

The photos elicited a feeling of sympathy for those who perished. This was a way of releasing the natural curiosity in humans about taboos and objects. From the pictures ,people were fearful and were filled with thrilling guilt of voyeur. This was further demonstrated by the fear of being punished through such occurrences.

The suffering and devastation that accompanied the attacks were captured by the photography were flared up shared and have now faded in the minds of many. This is because photography unlike written material has a language for all. Pictures of mutilated bodies and other forms of suffering were used in the past for instance after the war to vivify condemnation of war activities and to bring out the realities that underlie war for those who have never had the experience of war.

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The photography during the incident brought out the issues of globalizing suffering by the American journalists. This was a significant indicator of an era that is associated with cultural transformations. Through the photography, it emerged that through the cultural representation of suffering, the experience was seen to be altered and distorted by the photography.

An important ethical issue with regards to the tragedy is that those who were involved in the photography might have ended up carrying the burden of horror with them. This is because the pictures of people suffering and dead bodies still linger in their minds. If this is not well managed it can even lead to suicidal tendencies.

In the midst of all the suffering that the victims were undergoing , it was morally wrong for photojournalists to be taking photographs instead of helping to rescue and give first aid.This therefore put into question the ethics of the photojournalists that covered the 9/11tragedy.

In the present culture, it is vital to note that death has become an anti-social and private experience therefore publicly being confronted with the representation of death during the 9/11 attacks was not following the societal expectations.

This photography is a typical indicator of how society has become used to death representations. This has become a daily occurrence in the society in the 21st century because of the failure by those who are in charge not caring about the consequences of such visual representations.

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In the photography there was no visual avoidance of dead people. This can be viewed to have violated the visual taboo. This is because of the immense reality of suffering and death that was portrayed by the pictures.

According to Susan, the photographs that are worth representation concerning disaster are those in which suffering and death is caused by natural causes. The 9/11 tragedy was not a natural cause of death. Therefore ethically speaking from her point of view the representation of dead people in the 9/11 tragedy was not worthy.

The media can be said to have gone against ethics by capturing photographs of the tragedy. This can be attributed to the commercialization aspect of the media in the present society. Newspapers that brought out pictures of the tragedy sold out globally and made profits. This was very unfortunate considering the fact that this whole thing was planned and executed by terrorists on innocent lives.

During the coverage of the events at the site of the tragedy, it is essential to point out that some of the victims who had suffered injuries did not have a voice to defend themselves against being captured in the photography. The fact that photojournalists went ahead to make representations of the victims and dead bodies without their consent, it a clear indication of the theft of identity that took place. Maybe some of the victims did not want to be covered in the photographs but their will could not be respected which was out to capture scenes and make profits out of the victims’ images. This is not ethical behavior at all. Most of the people who were caught up in the tragedy found themselves in media images but this was not their wish at all.

Unlike in the past where photographs of war like the war in Vietnam were stage-managed, the case was different from the 9/11 attacks because people were confronted with what was the reality at the scene of the tragedy. If the photojournalists could have manipulated some of the pictures it would have meant a different thing. The bad thing is that there was an infringement on other people’s rights through the theft of identity that took place. Most of the people whose images appeared in the media were not paid as they deserved and that is why the media can be viewed to have been involved in unethical selfish behavior by presenting reality to the public without adequately compensating the people whose images were captures.

The issues of otherness also featured prominently in the coverage of the 9/11 tragedy.

The media brought out a very bad picture of itself after what can be described as turning people into dead bodies. The shamelessness that characterized the photography of the images of the dead bodies brought out the inhuman nature of those who were involved.

The people of New York who had already been turned into dead bodies did not deserve to undergo a display of such pictures. This is so because the people had already endured suffering and pity and needed to recover from the losses that were brought up by the tragedy. The display of the grisly photographs by the media can be looked at to have been in an effort to cater for voyeuristic appetites and thus they could be seen to be perpetuating the activities of the terrorist groups. This is because those terrorists who were responsible for the attacks must have felt like heroes when they were exposed to the grisly pictures of dead people and other victims of the tragedy.

The photojournalists were busy capturing and getting the best shots out of the tragedy instead of helping the injured victims. The effort of some of the photographers maybe would have saved lives but it was unfortunate that they could not leave their passionate job to help others. That is the reason why one is forced to assert that the photojournalist could watch other people as they died and thus were turned into dead bodies. This resultant increase in the statistics of those who perished in the tragedy because of lack of humanity by the photojournalists can be described as very unethical behavior. It was also up surd that it is indeed the same photographers who after leaving others to succumb to the injuries were bold enough to take pictures of grisly scenes and present them in the media. These grisly incident pictures had an impact on the viewers who ended up purchasing newspapers and some were even warded because of their pictures selling more in the country.

Photojournalists during this particular tragedy can be described to have exhibited voyeuristic elements in their coverage. Most of them concentrated on capturing pictures of dead identified bodies while ignoring the fact that many people had not been identified. They did not put into consideration that most of the unidentified bodies were also people from New York and they too had a right to receive coverage in the media. The feeling the relatives of those who were not identified is a major concern and which puts into question the ethical behavior of the photojournalists. This is a clear indication that the photojournalists who were covering the 9/11 tragedy did not observe the expected ethical standards because of their uncaring attitudes to the plight of those who were affected. Their interest seems to have been centered on satisfying their needs and not being part of the rescue mission.

In conclusion, it is important to know that the 9/11 terrorist attack photography is a very important case that illustrated ethical issues that are associated with photography and how the dead can be treated without ethical concerns because of the nature of the scene. This case is important for those who are in the field of photojournalism to learn a lesson for the better and prepare for such unexpected tragedies like war for instance.


Arther Kleinman and Joan Klainman, The Appeal for experience;The Dismay of images :Cultural Appropriations of suffering in our Times. University of California press 1995.

Amy Lawrence , The aesthetics of the Image.

Vivian Sobchack, Inscribing ethical space,Ten prepositions on death;Representation, Documentary.

Susan Sontag , Looking at War, Photography’s view of devastation and death.The New Yorker 2002.

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