The ethics of death

My respect for Tim Hetherington, documentary photographer and film maker, and photojournalist Chris Hondros, who were killed in a mortar attack in Libya two days ago.  Anyone committed, talented and determined enough to do the work that they did has my deepest admiration.

I didn’t know Tim Hetherington, I didn’t know him personally I mean. But I know his work, which I’ve been following for quite a while. And you get to know a photographer by looking at the images that they take. Hetherington’s images have been haunting me ever since I saw his contribution to Tales of a Globalising World in 2003. His 2007 World Press Photo award-winning image of an American soldier in Afghanistan brought a new dimension to photojournalism, fusing a poetic sense of aesthetics and humanity to the gruesome reality of war. In his latest book Infidel he continued with that exploration of the ‘war machine’ itself, focusing on the soldiers as people and bringing yet another fresh approach to documentary photography.

I wasn’t as familiar with the work of Chris Hondros but I was aware that it has seen the front pages of newspapers and magazines many times. His photograph of Joseph Duo, a Liberian government commander, was on many newspaper digital desktops worldwide within hours of it having been taken.

From the moment the news of the death of the two photographers reached the outside world the web has been inundated with notes of condolence and articles about their work and their untimely demise. One such article was published by the online version of The Daily Mail. And if you scroll down the page, past photographs taken by the two photographers, you will come to a rather graphic and disturbing image distributed by Reuters.

That image happens to show the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros as they are being attended by medical staff at the hospital in Misrata.

Predictably, that photograph has triggered some controversy. To be precise, the publishing of that image has created controversy. BJP magazine felt the need to remove the image from their website and put a placeholder and a link in its place due to the strong public reaction to it – scroll half-way down and you’ll see the link in bold. Olivier Laurent, News and Online Editor of BJP explains the reasons behind this decision here. Decency, decorum, ethics, aesthetics…so many considerations…it seems that the decision to publish an image like that is far from a simple affair.

But is it really?

What is the difference between showing Hondros bleeding to death on a hospital table and a graphic image of a Liberian child with a bloody, mangled hand? An image taken by Hondros, by the way – see it here; image no. 16 in the Liberia gallery; VERY GRAPHIC IMAGE. Is it the fact that we know the name of the people in the photograph, that is, Hondros and Hetherington, but we don’t know the name of the injured child? A person or an anonymous victim. That’s the difference a name makes I guess.

Why the uproar at the publishing of that image by the BJP and The Daily Mail?

Yes, I think that image distributed by Reuters should be published. I think that if one of Hetherington’s aims was to explore and subsequently make people see and understand the impact of war on ordinary civilians then neither he nor Hondros would have objected to that photograph of them lying dead on a table being published.

Ethics. Where do you draw the line? They either apply to us all exactly the same or they’re no more than double-standards.

Amendment: The original version of this post said ‘the BJP had to remove the image’ this was changed subsequently to read ‘the BJP felt the need to remove the image’


  1. Gareth 22 April 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I am very interested to see what people make of this article and the issue. Jose and I had a debate about whether to publish it – a debate informed by some very negative responses to an earlier article on WeAreOCA that featured the work of one of Jose’s students (It’s here if you want to see it).

    In 2001, Susan Sontag, in a change to her earlier opinion, said; ‘I would suggest that it is a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering there is in the world we share with other.’ If that is the case, then as Jose argues, to accept images of wounded and dying North Africans and reject images of Europeans and Americans has to be a double standard.

  2. duckrabbitblog 22 April 2011 at 5:57 pm

    First off I think a few corrections are needed.

    There was no strong public outcry to the image being used on BJP. A handful of people commented on my post, opinion was broadly split.

    I am not aware of a demand that BJP take the image down. I am not aware of anyone complaining about the use of the image in The Daily Mail.

    BJP did not ‘have’ to do anything. They reflected on my post and decided to change the way that the image was presented.

    I don’t understand what you mean by this point in relation to my objections:

    ‘What is the difference between showing Hondros bleeding to death on a hospital table and a graphic image of a Liberian child with a bloody, mangled hand?’

    My objection was based on the fact the image was used alongside a tribute from the family. My cousin was recently stabbed to death. I am going to his funeral tommorow.I don’t expect to see images of his body alongside family tributes. This is a matter of taste/context and has nothing to do with the ethnicity of the person in the photo.

    Finally I have an objection to these kinds of photos being taken in hospitals without the permission of those in the photos. Again that has nothing to do with ethnicity. A Dr should be able to carry out their important work in privacy and patients should be able to receive treatment in privacy (unless they choose otherwise).

    Photojournalism is a political act, the Geneva convention requires that medicine is not.

    Hospital photography is often cheap. The only thing easier is to shoot a dead body, but it rarely tells us anything that we don’t already know and often things that we don’t need to know at the expense of the person in the photo (or their family)

    1. Gareth 22 April 2011 at 7:56 pm

      I am extremely sorry to hear about your cousin. And clearly knowing nothing about it, I can only say that.

      The situation with the highly newsworthy death of two Western photojournalists strikes me as somewhat different. Your assertion that ‘A Dr should be able to carry out their important work in privacy and patients should be able to receive treatment in privacy’ is an interesting one and certainly is something I am going to reflect on, but it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to find examples of news organisations using photographs of doctors working on Libyan casualties (Channel 4 News last Sunday)

      1. duckrabbitblog 22 April 2011 at 8:20 pm

        My point about my cousin or Tim or anyone is that its better not to present a picture of them dieing alongside tributes from the family. That’s the wrong context for that kind of photo.

        It strikes me that Jose has got the issue back to front. If we really want to talk about double standards maybe we should ask the question why is it OK to take pictures of the dead and the dieing in a hospital in Libya (without their permission) and not in the UK? Almost everyone who didn’t like the use of the photo was coming at it from that perspective which has nothing to do with ethnicity and has little to do with the way it has been exaggerated here.

        Of course if permission is given this is a different matter. Even then I would not publish the photo alongside family tributes.

        MSF field hospital policy is that those in the photo give explicit permission, otherwise how are the humanitarian photographers any different to paparazi? Remember they are selling these images for profit.

  3. duckrabbitblog 22 April 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I should just add that I really object to this in the context of your article:

    ‘Ethics. Where do you draw the line? They either apply to us all exactly the same or they’re no more than double-standards.’

    You’re implying that there is double standards by those who disliked the use of the image. But did anyone who complained about this image suggest that it would be OK if the same approach was taken to someone of another nationality?

    If not perhaps you could rethink your analysis.

  4. Eileen 22 April 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I am very sorry to hear about your cousin Ben.

    This is a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, though not mostly in the context of war photography. My friend Antonia Rolls has produced and curated works about death, dying, and surviving serious illness. Her project is called ‘A Graceful Death’ and contains a range of paintings, some quite graphic and disturbing, of death and dying. Her point is to use art to help us look at this subject which is so taboo and hidden away in our society. The pictures differ from this one in that they are made with the permission (and sometimes at the initiative) of the individual concerned or their relatives. But even so the work is controversial and can provoke very strong reactions.

    It is understandable that people want to remember those they loved in happy times. But sickness and death happen and some feel very strongly that it is important to bear witness to suffering, and to use that to help others. I don’t personally think there’s a right or wrong answer to this question: it is important to be sensitive to individual circumstances and preferences.

    My own instinct is that the photographers would have wanted this picture to be shown and I personally think that it was right to publish it. It brings home to many the appalling suffering in Libya and they both believed in giving witness.

    My perception of the BC debate was that people were shocked by coming across the images with no warning in a place where they were not expecting to see forensic pictures. That’s a perfectly understandable reaction and showing the pictures by a link or appropriately signed seems to me to be a reasonable adjustment.

    As a society we don’t often look at the face of death. It is a very difficult thing to look at. But what’s the alternative? Pretend it doesn’t happen, or sanitise it and try to keep it firmly behind closed doors?

    1. Gareth 23 April 2011 at 10:14 am

      ‘As a society we don’t often look at the face of death. It is a very difficult thing to look at. But what’s the alternative? Pretend it doesn’t happen, or sanitise it and try to keep it firmly behind closed doors?’

      I think this is a fascinating and challenging question Eileen and I think the role of art is to challenge us. I also include photojournalism under the heading of art. I am grateful to people like Antonia and Tim Hetherington that they have the strength to look and bring us back images from scenes we would rather ignore. I don’t see that there is an alternative.

  5. nmonckton 22 April 2011 at 9:59 pm

    I did not read any suggestion in any of the above that ethnicity was a deciding factor in publication. I understood Gareth’s point to be that if we could justify the publication of the death of an anonymous victim, why would we not apply the same standards to someone who was known to us.

    I understand, and have every sympathy with, the position that the relatives of the dead do not wish to see pictures of their loved one next to their tributes, and if this was the basis of the BJP decision then it feels a right and decent decision.

    I agree too that photos snatched in a hospital without the patients consent are little better than paparazzi shots, but if this practice is unacceptable would this same rule not apply outside of a hospital – in which case it becomes impossible to photograph the dead or dying anywhere without their consent. What then for the war reporter?

    But the fact remains that we are subjected to images of dead and dying people all the time. It is posible that the relatives of the dead girl in Haiti that was discussed on this forum a while back will never see the photos. Does that make publication right? The risk remains that they will be seen. I am still haunted, years later, by a photo on the front of the Independent from the first Gulf War showing the burned body of an Iraqi truck driver hunched over his steering wheel. How much worse would it be if I had known the individual?

    The simple truth is that everyone is known by someone, every death in a war is someones personal tragedy – clearly, if we are to accept war photography as something we wish to continue then we have to accept the risk that eventually we will see a victim we know or recognise. For me it is more a case of respect than ethics – was the photo appropriately treated, and important in the context of the story? For me the BJPs decision is more about this judgement than ethics.

    1. duckrabbitblog 22 April 2011 at 10:45 pm

      ‘For me the BJPs decision is more about this judgement than ethics.’

      Absolutely agree which is why Jose’s comment that BJP ‘had’ to remove the picture is utter nonsense. It’s also why you will not see the image in any of the tributes (so far). That’s a matter of basic taste and decency.

  6. CliveW 22 April 2011 at 10:21 pm

    ‘I think that if one of Hetherington’s aims was to explore and subsequently make people see and understand the impact of war on ordinary civilians then neither he nor Hondros would have objected to that photograph of them lying dead on a table being published.’

    ‘My own instinct is that the photographers would have wanted this picture to be shown.’

    It’s perhaps a bold claim to make but from the sense of integrity of purpose that their own images transmit to me it’s a conclusion I would be inclined to agree with.

    It seems a fitting testament that their final image should be so powerful that it will be remembered and count.

  7. The Open College of the Arts 22 April 2011 at 9:39 pm

    duckrabbitblog says
    Jose’s post is inaccurate and misleading.

    The question is not whether the photo should have been published, but the context in which it is published.

    They are separate issues.

  8. Dawn 23 April 2011 at 1:54 am

    I read with interest the fullness of this page and peoples views and then secondly went to the newspaper article expecting to see something horrific and outrageous.

    Unfortunately I was met with an image we see so freely in our society that I just shrugged it off with an ‘and…?’. Desensitised perhaps through images seen openly in society, games, films and TV, advertisments etc… death is not taboo subject anymore and the same unfortunately goes for war and its victims…

    The two photographers would have no objections with the photograph it’s what they did, it was them their essence and in a way its a fitting tribute to their life and work.

    Photos of this nature tell a story, have a message and give information they enlighten. Photos taken just to get ‘the shot’ on the otherhand are what I call vulture photographs for glory of the photographer to make them feel ‘they got that shot…’ kind of a status thing.

    As for family and friends its tough and I would feel sick to have an image of one of my loved ones stuck in my head forever. But such is today’s life……

    Its about balance – a photograph – a title – and written words. Otherwise every published photograph would have to have a lift the flap with the words ‘at the viewers risk’ written on it.

    1. duckrabbitblog 23 April 2011 at 11:53 am

      Hi Dawn,

      just to say Tim Hetherington was not known for this kind of image. In recent years he had a very different approach to photographing war. In that sense it really isn’t a fitting tribute to his work, although I totally understand why you came to this conclusion.

  9. The Open College of the Arts 23 April 2011 at 8:59 am

    Paul says
    I have changed the ‘had to remove the picture’ to ‘felt the need to remove the picture’. I think it is clear that Olivier Laurent acted following your post. While the ‘had’ maybe overstates the case, it is not nonsense to identify that pressure was being applied.

  10. Catherine 23 April 2011 at 10:23 am

    I feel sympathy for the photographers’ relatives and friends and for the death of your cousin Ben. This is such a complicated issue with so many different points of view. When I initially read the post I was asking myself such questions as, “What was the purpose/intention of taking the photograph and then publishing it?” To bring home the violence which still continues in many parts of the world; to show the dangerous work done by photojournalists or something else? Personally I don’t like to see images of dead or dying people wherever or whoever they are and for whatever reason. I don’t need to be reminded pictorially about the violence in the world – words are enough.

    The other aspect this brings home to me as well is how important it is to check facts first before something is published.

  11. duckrabbitblog 23 April 2011 at 11:49 am

    My thanks to OCA for amending the post.

    Its an interesting debate.

    You can now see a youtube video of the two men dead or dieing in the Libyan hospital. Footage that will be used as propaganda.

    Where would you draw the line, webcams in Libyan hospitals? Why not if you think we should see everything?

    Catherine asks for me the most important question:

    ‘“What was the purpose/intention of taking the photograph and then publishing it?”’

    I have no problems with images of death or dieing. I have lived and worked in Ethiopia/Kenya and most recently in the Congo. I am no stranger to death. But in everything I do its important to consider the human rights of the people I document.

    For example did you know that it contravenes the Geneva Convention to be left naked in an open hospital ward? That’s because you have the right to privacy and dignity.

    Isn’t it a bit strange that we are so upset by the thought of the IPHONE keeping a record or your every movement, but at the same time we feel we have the right to take and broadcast images of people dieing in hospitals?

    If the world had more respect for human rights is it conceivable that there would be a war in Libya?

    Just some thoughts. But thank you once again for the debate and the interesting post.

    1. Gareth 23 April 2011 at 7:48 pm

      I think some of the thanks for the interesting debate are due to you. Thank you.

  12. CliveW 23 April 2011 at 12:41 pm

    “What was the purpose/intention of taking the photograph and then publishing it?”

    Would the answer to this question affect the potential reading of this image after its making and dissemination?

    If images of death or dying are not regarded as problematic then is the objection to the context that the images are portrayed in?

    It seems to me that the only effective way of controlling the context that an image is used in is to not make it available for publication by the press in the first place.

    Providing making the image is not illegal then the initial moral responsibility lies with the photographer. For it to be otherwise a supernumerary body would be needed to decide what would be palatable in what context.

    I believe the inevitable, continuing, debate is preferable. Everyone involved should take a reading from their own moral compass.

  13. Mikal W. Grass 23 April 2011 at 1:44 pm


    First of all, my condolences to you and your family on the death of your cousin. Nobody should know such pain!!!

    In reading your post on the death of Mr. Hondros, is your objection to the publishing of the photo based on the fact that it was taken in a hospital, where both you and I agree that a “zone of privacy” should exist, or is it based on the fact that a tribute from family was posted alongside the photo?

    For another view of what hospital photography is really like, might I suggest looking at Eugene Richards’ “Knife and Gun Club.” This was done before digital photography reared its head and enabled photos of death and destruction to be available to us immediately after they were taken.

    Does anyone have any idea if levels of violence have decreased since the advent of digital technology? I would venture to gues that they have not. Witness what is happening in the world: murder, mayhem, despotism, and tyranny still flourish in various parts of the world. The Syrian govt. still mows down protesters, even though the reports and photos of what happened are instantly available to the rest of the world. Robert Mugabe is still in power and sent and send his henchmen to murder white farmers and his perceived enemies. The world knows this, but it nothing changes, regardless of whether we see the photos.

    Yes, it is important to continue to see the photos that photojournalists take, but it is also important to understand that humans are just the animal at the top of the food chain, and that sometimes human beings react the same way as our less prescient and cognizant 2 legged and 4 legged brethren. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is some hope, though.

  14. Helen 23 April 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks to Jose for a thought-provoking piece and to all the contributors to this debate. Such a difficult subject but I have to agree with Gareth that it is one of the roles of art (and artistic documentation) to challenge us. I believe that every photographer should ask themselves whether they are telling us anything we don’t already know or whether we even need to know about what is being portrayed but it is always a difficult judgement to make when each viewer has had a different experience.

    I was recently in a hospital and saw things that I had no idea about that have changed my perspective on life. I would rather risk being offended or disgusted by photographic images of what I saw there than for someone else to decide what was tasteful or appropriate or decent for my eyes and mind to see.

    Photography/art opens doors for people to see more and sometimes it will be devastating and sometimes it will be beautiful and amazing; and of course sometimes it will be beautiful and amazing because it is so devastating but because there is also hope in humanity.

    I was very moved by the comments on the Duckrabbit blog:

    “When I looked at the last photos of Chris Hondros published yesterday on Lens I was genuinely shocked.

    They were great photos but I couldn’t help wondering what motivation leads an individual to take such huge risks?

    Then I thought of my friends who are photographers. Some of them great, but all of them, to a person, are better, are worth more, are loved more, wanted more and needed more then all of their pictures put together.”

    These words so powerfully encapsulate the feelings of terrible loss of an individual.

    And I know I would feel different if this was about one of my loved ones but I can’t bring myself to agree with the principle – if the photographers have chosen to take the risks and make the sacrifices and if their photographs change hearts and minds and create a new future then surely it is worth it?

    Meanwhile the rest of us who don’t go and fight or nurse or document events in these terrible wars are left to make our own difficult decisions about how we feel and what the hell we are going to do about it.

  15. duckrabbitblog 23 April 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Mikal,

    To answer your question is both. My original post was just a hastily scribbled reaction. duckrabbitblog is rarely more than that!

    When I read the BJP article the photo was added to it at the same time tributes from the family were added. That troubled me. But if you read my post I did not call for the image to be banned, or any kind of moral crusade.

    I think BJP did the right thing in ensuring that people could read the article and choose whether or not they wanted to look at the article. I have seen plenty of death so I prefer not to look at these images. In that way I appreciate the option.

    I know Eugene Richards work and I have shared a platform with him at Amnesty. Great photographer and I strongly agree that photography should strive to give a balanced view of war that does not shy away from the reality.

    My only real point is that context is important. Lets not drive people away from reading a family’s tribute because they prefer not to look at such images of suffering.

  16. AMANO 24 April 2011 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for this post Jose and the discussion it has provoked!

    I do not think there is much difference between the words “felt the need to” or “had to” ; it would appear that the BJP were forced to make changes though they might not like to admit to this.

    I am not going to enter into a moral debate about whether it is appropriate or not to show such images but it does seem like double standards to show photographs of dying Libyans and not dying Westerners. The internet is surely in Misrata and people there will be seeing the photos being taken which might include images of their loved ones; it might even encourage them to see the West as a very cynical observer of their lives.

    This incident and for that matter the discussion on this page, seems largely about our shifting attitudes towards death, a subject that is largely suppressed in the West unlike some other countries such as India.

    One point that no one seems to have mentioned is that the identity of the two dead people is not evident from the photograph in question, it is merely implied. I do not have much doubt that the photograph is genuine but it’s truth is a reference, an association rather than a fact.

    A question I have is, who is objecting to the use of this photo? The family or people who have taken the family’s concern as their right?

    Like Duckrabbit, Ben, I have also lost someone close to me in a violent death and the worst thing was having people cover up the details. No one took a photograph that I know of and if they had it would not have told me much yet I never found out the details of the exact nature of the death and it left me feeling perplexed even angry. Those who considered themselves acting on my behalf were in fact being very condescending.

    What a subject for an Easter morning. I thought it was all about chocolate eggs but here we are with a hot potato!

    1. duckrabbitblog 24 April 2011 at 1:34 pm


      I would love to think that a little post on my little blog that did not ask BJP to do anything could have power to force them to take an image down. Alas no.

      Accuracy is really important in journalism. The gap between being forced to do something and reflecting on something and then making a decision is huge. It’s like the difference between force feeding someone or persuading them to eat.

      The news editor at BJP is a friend of mine and I can assure you he is his own man. The majority supported his decision to publish the photo.

      I also think you misinterpret the debate. It seems to have got stuck on should you or shouldn’t you show the photo?

      I think the important question, and the one that concerned me when I wrote the post, is what is the right context for such a photo? And there of course is where we disagree.

      You seem to be arguing that in some way the many dozens of tributes to Tim that have been published on the internet have in some way been diminished by not having the photo of his dead body in the post?

      I know this is not something those related to the men injured would want. Of course the people writing the tributes don’t need to be told this because it’s just common sense.

      I do agree with you though that the family may well want to see the photos, probably not however next to their tribute. Put the photo, if you must, in the news story. Run the tribute somewhere else.

      1. AMANO 24 April 2011 at 3:39 pm


        You mention that your initial comment is ” a little post on my little blog” and yet your blog is described as “a well-known photojournalism blog” by Alan Taylor of Boston Big Picture and there are other testaments to the larger influence of your blog.

        You say in response to my post that “I would love to think that a little post on my little blog that did not ask BJP to do anything could have power to force them to take an image down. Alas no.” although previously you state that “They reflected on my post and decided to change the way that the image was presented.” (Both these comments can be found on this OCA thread!)

        One does not have to be a logician to see that one of these two statements is false (possibly both) and yet you say “Accuracy is really important in journalism.” Is not your blog a form of journalism?

        I take your point however about the context of the photo. Publishing it next to a family tribute is inappropriate unless of course the family request it.

        I never suggested that other tributes should carry such photos but reckon it would not be inappropriate if they did. Apparently, you are of opinion that the those related to the dead men (you inaccurately use the word injured) would not want the photo used; in reality, you would probably find that their feelings varied.

        I did not say that the family may want to see such photos as you suggest but almost certainly they would want to know the facts surrounding the death, a common request for those undergoing bereavement.

        You write that “My original post was just a hastily scribbled reaction. duckrabbitblog is rarely more than that!” and frankly thats’ the impression I get.

        In many ways, I think that this debate is about much more than photography; as Gareth says, ‘As a society we don’t often look at the face of death. It is a very difficult thing to look at. But what’s the alternative? Pretend it doesn’t happen, or sanitise it and try to keep it firmly behind closed doors?’

  17. duckrabbit 24 April 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks for your response Amano,

    ”One does not have to be a logician to see that one of these two statements is false (possibly both’

    I am not a logician, so perhaps you could explain your logic? It seems to be based on the idea that reflecting on something and being forced to do something are the same thing.

    I happen to think its true that my post did not ‘force’ BJP to ‘take an image down’. You don’t have any evidence that they were forced to do you?

    On the other hand I think it’s also true that my post made them reflect. Their written response says as much. If that’s the case then both of the things I wrote are correct. (being contradictory is normal for me, but in this case I think its a bit cheeky to accuse me of false statements)

    I’m glad you agree that the blog is rarely more than a scribble. Be a bit worrying if you fell for the idea that in some way we have any major influence.

    By the way when relating to the ‘injured’ I was referring to the other journalists who were injured in the same shelling (though this is not obvious). I am aware that the family and friends have been distressed by the imagery and some of the things that have been written. That’s to be expected. Its a distressing time.

    Finally (on a positive note) I think we can all agree with Gareth’s statement. I recommend that Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying for anyone thinking about these things. It helped me a lot.

  18. AMANO 24 April 2011 at 9:21 pm


    If you are not able to understand what I am writing, best for me to stop.

    As for the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, I have supplied photographs to the author, one of which he used in earlier editions of his worldwide bestseller.

    If only people could take on board the “quiet revolution” about death that he works to inspire, the world would surely be a saner place.

    In fact, he is speaking in London next month …


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