Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, has written an excellent piece based on the decision by Times editors to run a picture of a grieving mother among a number of dead babies killed by the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The photo is graphic and difficult to look at. It is like many such photos that have burned themselves into our psyches.
The surpassing power of pictures enables them to become the permanent markers of enormous events. The marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the South Vietnamese general shooting his captive at point-blank range, the young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s passing coffin: each is the universal symbol for a historical moment. You don’t need to see them to see them.
But Okrent goes beyond the decision to run the photo to talk about pictures themselves.
Under the provocative headline “No Picture Tells the Truth. The Best Do Better Than That,” Okrent discusses the fact that no picture captures the entire event of which it is part. A picture can tell part of the truth, but not the whole truth. Editors know that. Readers and viewers should recognize it, too.
(Posted Jan. 10, 2005)
Update: Okrent’s column of Sunday, Jan. 16, is made up of letters from readers, many of which have reacted to his column and to the picture the Times published.
(Posted Jan. 17, 2005)