photograph of warning sign
"Warning!" by lamoix is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Last week, as I scrolled through the online newspapers from which I get my daily news – The Guardian online and the news website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, two high quality, trustworthy publications, I saw several headlines pertaining to a photograph of a father and daughter who drowned trying to cross from Mexico into the USA. News headlines on such platforms customarily carry a warning if the story they lead to contains images which viewers are likely to find distressing. 

I understand that a picture which shows graphic, distressing content can for that reason portray what words can fail to portray, and can bring the realities of the plight of migrants and refugees home to the public in profound and powerful ways. The difficulties faced by those fleeing war, terror, or extreme poverty is an issue I care deeply about, and I have previously written on the plight of refugees in indefinite detention in offshore facilities run by the Australian government. 

I am also a mother of a young daughter, which, on reflection, was the main reason why for several days I passed over this story, choosing not to open any of the links. I made the decision, with some trepidation, that I would find looking at the photograph of a young dead child and her father too upsetting. 

While The Guardian initially published the photograph behind a warning of that gave readers the choice to view the picture, or not to view it, later in the week the online paper published an opinion piece with a headline suggesting that people should be forced to see the picture.1 The thumbnail for this piece, overriding the general practice of providing a warning, displayed the picture near the top of the front page of the website, where every reader unavoidably saw it. 

It is indeed very difficult to look at Julia le Duc’s harrowing picture of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, floating face-down near the bank of the Rio Grande, on the US-Mexico border. I was, as anyone who has seen the picture must be, deeply distressed by it; I was also very upset that my careful choice not to view it had been removed. 

By way of explanation, the reader’s editor of The Guardian said that in weighing the decision to publish images such as these: “the standards guiding most serious newsrooms include: do not use gratuitously; provide context; give appropriate warnings; consider the sensitivities of the grieving; and respect the dignity of the deceased.” I do not believe The Guardian‘s publishing of this picture was gratuitous; I agree that in discussions of it they provided context. 

The question of the sensitivities of those who are grieving and of the dignity of the deceased is a little harder to answer – and answers may be of a more personal standing. Sometimes the best moral test is still to ask oneself how one would feel if the experience was one’s own. I don’t think in this case there can be a right moral answer to that question. Some people would say ‘yes if that was my husband and daughter I would want the world to see what happened to them if it may prevent even one more tragic migrant death’; others may give the opposite reply, that they do not want the tragedy of their young family to be visible to the whole world. Both those responses are valid. 

I do not argue that it is wrong of news organisations to publish the picture at all, and I do not even know if at other times I might have consented to see it. But for my own personal reasons, this time, for this picture, I had very consciously chosen not to, and I felt strongly about the fact that my choice not to view it had been removed.

The Guardian‘s editor-in-chief editor explained the decision to publish the picture saying: “It is an incredibly powerful image that would have a great impact and perhaps make people understand the human cost of the migrant crisis in the US.” This is doubtless true. The other side of President Trump’s anti-immigrant, populist rhetoric is the reality of people struggling for survival, people risking everything they have, including their lives and the lives of their children, to escape danger, poverty, and hopelessness. 

In this case a picture does indeed do more than speak a thousand words. What we need at this time is compassion – and a powerfully tragic picture such as this one is capable of softening hardened hearts and of moving people who would otherwise be unaware of the human cost of the refugee crisis. I agree that the arguments for making this image public are compelling.  

In another article on the subject, Guardian writer Peter Beaumont argues that, 

“What we see in Le Duc’s harrowing picture requires that we do not look away; that we demand to know the context and ask the hard questions. That we bear both witness and know what we are seeing.”2

Beaumont seems to be suggesting that we have a kind of duty (not a strict moral duty, but an obligation expressed by his choice of the word ‘requires’) not to look away from the reality this picture brings home. To take this argument seriously is to raise the question of whether my own personal choice not to look at the photograph is a way of resiling from the reality of the suffering of others, and whether this constitutes a kind of moral cowardice. Perhaps the dignity of those who suffer, as well as the dignity of those of us who witness that suffering, does require that we not turn away; that we look frankly at what we cannot bear to see.

Photographers who capture these images do so at significant personal cost. Don McCullin, a photojournalist who covered, among other things, the Congo Crisis in 1964 and Vietnam in 1968 later wrote that he was haunted by the memories of what he had seen and documented, and photojournalist Kevin Carter, who took the unforgettable picture of a little boy, starving and stalked by a vulture in Ethiopia in 1993, committed suicide four months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.  

Looking frankly at what we cannot bear to see is a way we have of refusing to turn a blind eye to unbearable truths. Sometimes such images are able to catalyse change – as Carter’s photograph did; but there is also something morally important about simply ‘bearing witness’. Being emotionally, intelligently and compassionately present to the tragedy and the suffering of others is of great moral importance because it touches the depths of the very things that make us human, it reminds us of the ‘infinite preciousness’ of each individual person, to borrow a phrase from one of Australia’s greatest philosophers Raimond Gaita.3

In conclusion, I find I cannot cling to my outrage at being forced to view what I had pointedly chosen not to view. Nor, however, do I make a strong moral argument either for or against The Guardian having violated a right I might claim, to choose the content that I see. What is clear is that my own sensitivities are as nothing compared to what has happened to this family, and to what is happening to many, many refugees around the world right now.

1 I could not locate that article for this piece and I suspect it has been removed, but in any case, I feel it would be inappropriate to provide a link to the offending article, as it may recreate the situation I am here addressing.

2 Warning: This link contains the distressing image of a drowned father and daughter https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jun/27/harrowing-photo-of-drowned-father-and-daughter-rio-grande-us-mexico-border

3 Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love, Truth and Justice, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999.

Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD in philosophy from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She currently works as a freelance researcher and writer, as well as a sessional tutor in philosophy and ethics. She is a member of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy where she teaches short courses. Her research and teaching specialties include moral philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.