Photographing the Dead

We’ve had a lot of discussion this past week about the distribution of photographs of people who died violent deaths.  We’ve discussed the purpose of releasing such images, who might be offended by such images, who has the right to see such images, and so on.

During the American Civil War many people could not get enough of pictures of battlefield dead.  Some images were grusome:

Some, including this one, which is most probably posed with a body moved from elsewhere, offered something approaching the peaceful and romantic:

Then there are those that show the destruction wrought by war upon a human body:

And, finally, there were those that sought to be more philosophical …

… although even that was to some extent posed, as this shows:

Immediately after the battle of Antietam Matthew Brady’s team went to the battlefield to take pictures of the dead.  The following month the results were displayed in New York City, and on October 20 a reporter for the New York Times offered his take on the images in context.

The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. There would be a gathering of skirts and a careful picking of way; conversation would be less lively, and the general air of pedestrians more subdued. As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type. The roll we read is being called over in Eternity, and pale, trembling lips are answering to it. Shadowy figures point from the page to a field where even imagination is loth to follow. Each of these little names that the printer struck off so lightly last night, whistling over his work, and that we speak with a clip of the tongue, represents a bleeding, mangled corpse. It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain—a dull, dead remorseless weight that will fall upon some heart, straining it to the breaking. There is nothing very terrible to us, however, in the list, though our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.

We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. The crape on the bell-pull tells there is a death in the house, and in the close carriage that rolls away with muffled wheels you know there rides a woman to whom the world is very dark now. But you only see the mourners in the last of the long line of carriages—they ride very jollily and at their ease, smoking cigars in a furtive and discursive manner, perhaps, and were it not for the black gloves they wear, which the deceased was wise and liberal enough to furnish, it might be a wedding for all the world would know. It attracts your attention, but does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold—you know whether it is a wedding or a funeral then, without looking at the color of the gloves worn. . . .

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it . . .

We should scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the taping trenches. For these trenches have a terror for a woman’s heart, that goes far to outweigh all others that hover over the battle-field. How can a mother bear to know that the boy whose slumbers she has cradles, and whose head her bosom pillowed until the rolling drums called him forth—whose poor, pale face, could she react it, should find the same pillow again . . . when, but for the privilege of touching that corpse, of kissing once more the lips through white and cold, of smoothing back the hair from the brow and cleansing it of blood, stains, she would give all the remaining years of life that Heaven has allotted her—how can this mother bear to know that in a shallow trench, hastily dug, rude hands have thrown him. She would have handled the poor corpse so tenderly, have prized the boon of caring for it so dearly—yet, even the imperative office of hiding the dead from sight has been done by those who thought it trouble, and were only glad when their work ended.

Such words are well worth reflecting upon this weekend.  As Jon Stewart said in reference to the recent controversy: “Maybe we should always show pictures. Bin Laden, pictures of our wounded service people, pictures of maimed innocent civilians…. We can only make decisions about war if we see what war actually is.”

13 thoughts on “Photographing the Dead

  1. Ray O'Hara May 7, 2011 / 2:43 pm

    the url contains the first picture the War Dept released in WWII of American dead. it followed mucg debate and the photo picked was chosen because you can’t see the faces of the dead.

    It’s an old fear that politicians have that if we actually knew what was going on we’d put a stop to things.

  2. Charles Lovejoy May 7, 2011 / 7:06 pm

    I have mixed feelings, I think these war time photos show the horror of war removing its romanticism. But I feel if the person in these photos were a family member I would not want them published. I feel it is disrespectful of the dead. As far as the resent Bin Laden photos my question is not one of respect because I have no respect for him. My question is, what would be the reason for their release? Would it be counter productive?

  3. Matt McKeon May 8, 2011 / 6:40 am

    I think releasing images of the dead is a mixed bag. If I recognized someone I knew it would be horrifying. But we get such a sanitized view of warfare: big exciting armored vehicles churning through the sand, helicopters, explosions, our guys crouching behind something. It’s a war movie, with awesome special effects, packaged for our consumption.

    In the movie “13 Days” one of Kennedy’s advisors tell him, “Why don’t we bomb the shit out of them? It would sure feel good. Everybody wants to do it.” One of our current presidents’ advisor could also assure him it would look good too!

  4. Lyle Smith May 8, 2011 / 8:23 am

    How much did battlefield photographs almost cost Lincoln his Presidency and possibly the war itself?

    That’s the problem with the superficial Stewart analysis I think.

  5. John Foskett May 8, 2011 / 9:19 am

    I think that there are significant distinctions to be made regarding the Fall, 1862 publication of Gardner’s Antietam photographs and, for example, the photograph of Bin Laden. Until September, 1862 Americans, and likely most people anywhere, still had a romanticized view of warfare and were generally able to insulate themselves from the reality of war. Gardner’s photographs were, in a sense, highly “educational” in that respect. To a lesser extent the 1943 Buna photograph served a similar purpoe. It is highly unlikely today that anyone with at least dim connections to this planet has anything other than an understanding that people getting shot at results in pretty horrific carnage. Releasing Bin Laden’s photograph would shed no light on a reality of which most people today are unaware. In fact, if anything the very fact that its release is unnecessary in that regard could well suggest that there are other reasons to do so. The latter concerns appear to be what’s driving the decision against release. Not a clear-cut issue but I can’t say that I have a problem with it.

  6. TF Smith May 8, 2011 / 10:47 am

    War is all hell, boys.

    Is there a difference in releasing images of one’s own dead, versus images of the enemy’s dead?

  7. ann brammerjohnson July 5, 2011 / 11:47 am

    i have been thinking about the effect on my life of seeing photographs of the civil war dead, the Jewish holocoust, lyinchings in the south, dragging a gay man to his death behind a car… these images have had a profound effect in making me want to do all i can to protect life and stop killing. my dilemma right now is what do i do with the images of arms and legs and heads torn off tiny bodies that have been aborted. my question is if i do this how do i do it so it doesn’t bring more death through hate(Jesus said if you hate a person it is the same as killing them). If i don’t use them will i just be allowing millions more tiny bodies to be torn apart? please share with me what i am to do. i don’t want to keep on doing nothing. thanks

  8. May 27, 2013 / 5:57 am

    I think what you published made a ton of sense.
    But, what about this? suppose you composed a catchier
    post title? I am not saying your content isn’t good., but what if you added something to possibly grab folk’s attention?
    I mean Photographing the Dead | Crossroads is kinda plain.
    You could look at Yahoo’s home page and note how they create post titles to get viewers to open the links. You might add a video or a related picture or two to get people interested about what you’ve written.
    In my opinion, it would make your blog a little bit more interesting.

  9. Susan Garner January 6, 2017 / 10:06 am

    Is it not a brisk slap in the face to wake each of us from our self-centered lives, to insist we consider the reality that surrounds us, and at least remember with reverence what these human sacrifices have purchased for us.

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