Qaddafi’s Dead. Did You See the Photo?

From images of Emmett Till to snapshots of deceased dictators, publishing death photos is a practice with a complicated history.


That same day, on the View, Whoopi Goldberg talked about the Jackson death photos while pictures of his corpse flashed onscreen before she could warn the audience. The video is posted on YouTube now, with commenters ragging on Goldberg for showing the pictures. (Though, clearly, that had to have been the choice of the show’s producers.)

So: It’s OK to laugh at pictures of dead bad guys, but don’t post pictures of the troubled King of Pop after he’s met an untimely end at the hand of propofol.

There’s long been a squeamishness about depicting death in the media. Journalists debate about the public’s need to know before publishing photos of dead bodies. During World War II, photographer George Strock broke a long-held taboo against depicting pictures of the war dead. His photo of three felled American soldiers lying facedown on Buna Beach in Papua New Guinea stoked much controversy about the public’s need to know versus offending sensibilities and the soldiers’ right to privacy. Did Qaddafi and his sons have a right to privacy as well? Or did we need to know exactly what they looked like after they met their violent ends?

Then again, sometimes the death photo is used as a primal scream, evidence of unspeakable wrongdoing that demands that the viewer be outraged and, from that outrage, act. In 1955 Jet magazine published a photograph of the badly mutilated body of Emmett Till. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” his mother, Mamie Till, said at the time.

The world saw — and acted. Many credit the photo with launching the start of the civil rights movement. Eight years later the horrific picture of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, setting himself on fire in Saigon illustrated the horrors of the Vietnam War.

As long as there have been cameras, there have been those who have felt the need to depict the dead, to render finality on film. During Victorian times, mourning families posed their dead loved ones for the camera, propping up a dead child on a beloved rocking horse, or sitting a dead twin next to a living one. Sad-faced mothers posed with their dead babies in their arms. For many, it would be their only memento of the deceased. Looking through the pictures, they seem tender, not morbid.

Contemporary artists like Andres Serrano, with The Morgue series, and Sally Mann, with What Remains, her photographs of decomposing bodies, carry on the tradition of post-mortem photography. Their photos are disturbing but also, in their repose, somehow lyrical and haunting.

Are they exploiting the dead? Or merely creating art out of something that we will all eventually experience? Why do we want to look away, and then look again, when confronted with their photographs? Is it the same impulse when faced with Qaddafi’s dead visage?

Perhaps we’re spitting on his grave. Or just happy that he got to the other side before we did.

“The morgue is a secret temple where few people are allowed,” Serrano said in a 1993 interview with Bomb magazine. “Paradoxically, we will all be let in one day. I think you’re upset and confused that I’ve brought you there prematurely.”

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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