It was the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993 that changed everything.
Not only did the United States pull out of Somalia without completing its mission, the images streaming out of the country of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged, naked, through the streets of Mogadishu forever changed how photographs of the dead are viewed in the U.S. media.
Never before had a series of photos changed U.S. policy so completely. In future conflicts, from Rwanda to Liberia, the U.S. was reluctant to intervene because of the embarrassment -and horror--over what became known as the "Mogadishu Moment."
Americans rarely see photos of the dead, especially their own, in mainstream media outlets. The U.S. media has been trained to tiptoe around publishing images of American corpses, not wanting to outrage the families of dead soldiers and citizens. Images of war and crises are political and the U.S. media censors them accordingly.
The earthquake in Haiti seems to have been an exception, when the awfulness of the disaster somehow made publishing the photographs more important than protecting the dignity of the dead. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times chose to publish graphic images of the carnage in Haiti, to which The Post's Ombudsman Andrew Alexander defended the decision by saying: "Journalism is about truth, and the horrific images convey reality."
Yet Susan Sontag in her New Yorker essay, "Looking at War: Photography's view of devastation and death," didn't seem to agree. After looking at photographs of black lynching victims at a New York gallery, she asks: "What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel "bad"; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we the better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don't they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)?"
My view of photographs of the dead was recently challenged when I was faced with an ethical decision about whether to publish a series of brutal photographs on the website I founded, Ceasefire Liberia, a citizen media site connecting Liberians around the world. The same questions Sontag asked plagued me as I woke up, checked my inbox, and found photos of two men who had been beaten to death by a mob for attempting to rob a store in the West African nation of Liberia.
The pictures were sent to me by the blogger, Saki Golafale, who often writes for the Ceasefire Liberia site. Yet this was the first time in Ceasefire Liberia's year-long existence that I had woken up to photos of murder victims staring out at me from my computer.
I read the story Saki sent searching for some clues to what I was seeing. Saki's account of the story was that four men attempted to rob the Buzzy Boy Shop in the Wood Camp community of Paynesville at gunpoint, firing into the air to scare the owner, Mr. Grant. After Mr. Grant handed over the money to the men, residents, who had heard the gunshots, rushed into the store. The men fled, but two were caught and beaten to death by the angry crowd.
"They were to be burned with tires, but we saw that as a waste of time," an unidentified person told Saki.
In many ways this story is not surprising. I had read about vigilante justice in the U.S. State Department's 2009 Human Rights report on Liberia. I know the justice system in Liberia is in tatters. Police are unpaid, jails are full, and criminals walk free. Justice is rare. The residents of the community knew that calling the police would lead them nowhere. They had tried to call the police after other incidents. This was the third robbery in the community in just one week. Frustration had built, there was no longer any point in reporting the crimes, the residents said.
One resident at the murder scene said, "The police and the criminals are the same." Another said, "It is better to kill them than to report these useless men to the authorities because they will be released very soon."
Yet reading Liberia's Human Right report, a document written in legalese, and seeing brutal photographs of the dead, are two different things altogether. As well-written as the State Department's report was I didn't recoil from it the way I did from Saki's photos.
As I stared at the gory pictures so many thoughts flooded my mind. The sheer brutality of the situation struck me: the pool of blood, the awkward position of the body, the near-naked corpse, the pieces of wood, presumably used to beat the man, which now lay next to him. The legs of the crowd, which included women in brightly colored African skirts, stood next to the body. What were they thinking as they stood there? In one photo a man leans over into the picture with a camera to get a closer shot of the dead body lying awkwardly in the sand. Tires lay nearby.
Is it ethical to post these photos?, I wondered. Yet, is it ethical not to post them? Would the story be as powerful or real to readers without seeing what mob justice actually looks like? Are some things just too brutal to be disseminated? Unfortunately, this brave new world of citizen media does not come with a rulebook, or a code of ethics, like many mainstream outlets do.
My decision to post the photos (with a disclaimer to readers) was based on the fact that Ceasefire Liberia is one of the few citizen media outlets in Liberia. Its mission is to report stories, which are not covered in the mainstream Liberian or international press. If Ceasefire Liberia did not tell the story- and show the images-of what happened in the Wood Camp community in Liberia, the story would be forgotten. Part of journalism's mission is to bear witness, no matter how brutal the truth is.
Some readers disagreed with my decision, feeling that photos of vigilante justice solidified the stereotype of Africa as savage, dark, and uncivilized. Like Sontag, these readers asked whether the photos, "rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)?"
My answer to Sontag and others is this: The point of publishing horrific images is to anger, sadden, appall, help us mourn, teach us about the world, and make us feel compelled to act.
As a journalist, and the founder of a citizen media site, my job is to shine a spotlight on the world, not keep it hidden in darkness. If by doing so people are awakened to the horrors that exist in their backyards, and others, than the images have done their job and I have done mine.