A man lies dead at the side of the road; other residents hover in the background. It is probably blood that is creating the darkness around the corpse’s head. The scene is unutterably bleak.
The decision to use this image on last Friday’s front page was not taken lightly. To show death in all its fullness and finality is a big deal and should be very much the exception rather than the norm.
On Friday I think we got it right. The body, identity unclear, was one of the many victims of the Isis attack on Palmyra. Was he defending his home? Was he murdered in cold blood? All we know for sure is that he was someone’s son and he will never again see his parents. He may have been a husband too; a father, a brother and many other things beside. But whatever he was, he was regarded as an enemy by followers of the so-called Islamic State, who have butchered innocent men, women and children in the name of a religious perversion.
Isis is not averse to its brutality being known, and seen. Its own murder videos are carefully produced, glossy and mannered. Whether it is beheading Christians, burning alive an enemy combatant or flinging gay men from buildings, Isis glories in the drama of killing.
We would not fuel the flames of these propaganda spectacles by giving them front page prominence. In part that is to avoid the fulfilment of an element of their purpose – to promulgate widespread fear. It is also because we would not wish to provide a platform to the Isis presentation of murder as glorious.
Friday’s picture was the very opposite: slaughter as banal, routine, unremarked. And to show it on page one not only underscored the pathetic tragedy of the war, it also served as a stark reminder that Isis kill day in, day out, by the hundred. They do not save each act of viciousness for posterity. But, as a matter of public interest and humanity, every one of their victims needs to be remembered.
Not everyone will agree with this view. Some may also be surprised that on the question of a seemingly more mundane photo, I take the contrary position.
Ancient monuments under Isis threat
Ancient monuments under Isis threat
1/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
The ancient oasis city of Palmyra
2/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
A partial view of the ancient ruins
3/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
The ancient Palmyra theater
4/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
A view of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra
5/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
The Temple of Bel
6/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
Palmyra's famous graves
7/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
The ancient castle
8/8 Isis seizes Palmyra
A sculpture depicting a rich family from the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra, displayed at the city's museum
Following last week’s rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers The Independent, in common with other newspapers, used a picture of the scene, showing passengers still trapped in their seats.
By the time we went to press it was known that four individuals had been seriously injured, although reports suggested that all would survive.
In our published image two people appeared to have blood on their faces. And the caption alerted readers to one of them in particular, describing him as “injured”.
The photograph was not of crystal clear quality and it is very unlikely that any of those involved in the crash were identifiable to anyone who did not already know what had befallen them. Moreover, the incident happened in place where there could be no reasonable expectation of privacy.
Even so, it seemed to me the picture was misjudged. Its use hardly displayed sensitivity towards friends and family who were presumably in shock at what had taken place. And crucially, there was nothing in its specific level of detail that was vital to readers’ understanding of the situation or that might have exposed something important to the crash investigation or otherwise served the public interest.
An image from a different angle, which did not show bloodied faces, would have sufficed just as well.
So, two stories, two images. Taken together they prove that the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words may be true: but not every time.
Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard
Twitter: @willjgoreReuse content