Sam Norton

A&E Editor


They say that pictures are worth 1,000 words, and ever since the camera obscura was invented in 1000 A.D. by Alhazen, this tool has served as a way to document our history and portray what words can’t. Photography is one medium that has become essential to our society; it goes where we can’t—from the wars overseas, to local acts of terror, photography is the one medium that shows all.

But what has been captured through the lens has changed. It’s no longer smiles or demonstrations of affection; rather it displays what would be better left to the imagination.

When news of the Boston Marathon bombing spread, photos of the injured and the destruction became more memorable than the articles themselves. We all became familiar with the photograph of the man whose legs were blown off when the bomb detonated, clenching his artery as he was wheeled to safety.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP Photo A woman wipes away a tear at a memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing on Boylston Street near the race finish line, Monday, April 22, 2013, in Boston, Mass. at 2:50 p.m., exactly one week after the bombings.

When news coverage of Sept. 11 began just 12 years ago, America became familiar with photographs of the man escaping the flames and descending to his death. These are the images that remain popular among society, and these are the images that we have become accustomed to seeing in newspapers and magazines. Maybe it’s because we need to see it in order to understand it. Or maybe it’s because that’s the only way we connect.

According to the article “Drawing the Line: Photojournalism vs. Sensationalism,” published by the University of Central Florida, “Most photojournalists would argue that their coverage and its graphic nature are motivated by a philanthropic attempt to shock the average person into taking notice of the horrific events that have ruined and changed the lives of people in a country that, the typical person may not typically give a second thought to on a daily basis. In a hope that by viewing these images, people may be compelled to provide aid and support to those affected most by the tragedy.”

But photographs aren’t just documenting our history anymore; they have made these acts of terror become more alive, and it has become difficult to erase these images from our memories.

Now, photography serves as a platform for sensationalism. By documenting the unthinkable—the man with his legs blown off and the man falling to his death—we have given the perpetrators of these acts a voice that can’t be ignored. It has become impossible to distinguish between what is photography and what is sensationalism.

According to the article “Disaster Photography: When does it cross the line?” published by NPR, “The endless pictures and videos of the disaster are made possible by the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of camera phones, twitter, etc. Maybe 20 years ago, the barrage of images of corpses and wailing human beings with amputated limbs would have been a shocker, but today we watch them with our morning coffee, or over dinner.”

Because we are constantly bombarded with these images, we have become desensitized. What should leave us with a feeling of disgust doesn’t because these types of images are everywhere. When Osama bin Laden was killed, America’s reaction was to obtain photographic proof. Everyone wanted to see the lifeless body of the man who killed thousands of innocent people. But if the person was anyone else, our reaction would change. We would cringe at any sight of blood, rather than let out sighs of victory when viewing that photo.

“News images shape our culture in ways both profound and deep.  Those who lived through the Vietnam era cannot help but remember the searing photographs that have come to symbolize that conflict–a Saigon street execution, a naked girl covered in napalm, a thousand-yard stare, and so on.  These photos have woven themselves into the collective memory of a generation.  There are some who would even say that the mounting weight of photographic evidence was the primary cause for public opinion to shift against the war in Vietnam, and hence effected an end to the war itself,” according to the article “Ethics in Photojournalism: Past, Present, and Future,” published by MIT scholar Daniel Bersak.

But even though these images of the naked girl covered in napalm and the body of Osama bin Laden are ones that have become memorable among society, these photographs blur the lines of what is ethical and what is not. While these images help explain what words can’t, photographs are now being used in place of news articles.

Photography has made its way to become a crucial part in documenting our history. But just because it is integral to our society doesn’t mean it should portray the disturbing events and memories that have impacted our country. Even though these infamous photographs represent our country—the misfortunes and triumphs—they blur the lines between pure horror and a terrible reality.

NPR states in their article, “The imagery of immediate horror do not fully capture the fact that this tragedy was decades in the making. At the same time, we should give American audiences some credit. Yes, the images are there, available 24 hours a day, but not everyone has given in to the non-stop voyeurism. Even if you wanted to, who has time? And surely, many in the American public have used that wonderful little thing called the “off button” [which we in media also tend to forget about]. And most Americans appreciate the difference between horror flicks and a terrible reality.”

Sam Norton can be contacted at

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