Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

« Previous Post | Readers' Representative Journal Home | Next Post »

Portraits of a disaster

January 30, 2010 |  9:33 am

The photographic images from Haiti can be shocking: Street after street of flattened buildings; earthquake survivors living in vast tent cities; bodies piled up. But there also have been scenes of hope: Port-au-Prince residents digging through rubble in desperate rescue attempts; aid workers caring for the injured; signs of basic commerce returning.

News photography adds a dimension to a story such as the Haitian earthquake that words alone can’t convey. And readers are drawn to these images; in the last seven days, a gallery of Haiti photos on has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.

Haiti-dad As reader Judith Favor of Claremont wrote: “Skillful journalism by Tracy Wilkinson and Joe Mozingo reflect the resourcefulness of Haitian humanity, expanding my perspective. Artful photography by Carolyn Cole and Brian Vander Brug illuminates poignant moments, deepening my tenderness. Respectful kudos to the LA Times team as they work under incomprehensible challenges in Port-au-Prince.”

Times photographers who are in Haiti -- currently Cole and Vander Brug, and earlier Rick Loomis -- are filing dozens of photos apiece each day. So in choosing from among all those images for publication, editors try to accurately and fairly portray the story while maintaining standards of taste.

“It is really difficult to cover a story as devastating as the Haitian earthquake without showing tough images,” said Deputy Managing Editor Colin Crawford, who oversees the photography staff. “I don't believe that you can understand what is really happening over there without strong visuals.”

Readers don’t always agree with editors’ photo decisions.

Ambrose Terrence of Van Nuys was angered by what he saw as an unfair emphasis on looting: “What do we predominantly see pictures of? Not of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who spent day after day, night after night digging through the rubble to find their loved ones or neighbors; not the scores of thousands of Haitians volunteering to medically aid and comfort the hundreds of thousands of injured; not the mothers and fathers in agony over the loss of their children or the hundreds of thousands of children who have lost their parents. … We get, mostly, pictures of ‘looters.’”

In response, Deputy Director of Photography Steve Stroud took a look at the first week of coverage. He found that as of the Jan. 18 edition, six days after the quake, 29 photos from Haiti had been published:

  • Seven of destruction
  • Six of displaced residents
  • Five of rationing
  • Three of rescuers
  • Three of looting
  • Two of dead victims
  • Two of injured victims
  • One of medical assistance

“Of the photos of injured, one shows a bandaged young girl receiving assistance from a Haitian medic,” Stroud said. “Another from that same grouping shows three young Haitians carrying a third, injured Haitian to a hospital. … Yet another photo shows two exhausted Haitian men pausing while digging in the rubble for a trapped friend.”

Terrence acknowledged that “the range is greater than I may have noticed in my upset over the size and placement of many of the more sensational pictures involving looting or suspected looting.” He added, “It's hard not to think statements are being made in the way they are being used in terms of size and placement in lieu of written material.”

Haiti-bathe Several readers reacted to an image by Cole (left) published Jan. 18 that showed two young girls and three other people bathing in the water from a broken water pipe.

A second Cole photo (below), from Jan. 19, of four women in a remote town receiving medical treatment was seen by Randy Bostic of Topanga as “a violation of the privacy of those women. In addition to what they have suffered already, they have now had to suffer a blow to their dignity in the L.A. Times.”

Haiti-clinic “The photos mentioned by the readers as being too personal I feel help to tell the complete story,” said Crawford, the editor who oversees the photo staff. “They are not images of destruction or bodies, but in both cases people coping with the realities of the situation they are in and doing the best they can.”

Each of these two photos is discomforting. Many of the photos from disasters are -- but we need to see them.

-- Deirdre Edgar
Twitter: @LATreadersrep

Photo credits: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


New York Times: “Face to Face with Tragedy”

Washington Post: “Horrible images of death in Haiti”


Times coverage from Haiti