Do Pictures Tell the Most Important Part of the Story?
In "Boston Photographs," writer Nora Ephron makes a case supporting the decision by newspaper editors to print a photo trilogy showing the tragic moments leading up to the death of a young mother. At the time the photos were printed, in over four hundred newspapers across the nation, there was great controversy. Readers expressed in phone calls and letters to the editor. Some editors chose not to print the photos at all.
Ephron argued that since death is part of life, readers should not be sheltered from it. She asked why photos from fatal car accidents show the wrecked vehicles and not the victims. Mangled steel is worthless; a human life is priceless. Why not capture on film the loss of that which is truly precious?
The so-named "Boston Photographs" were taken in 1975 by photojournalist Stanley Forman.. "I made all kinds of pictures because I thought it would be a good rescue shot over the ladder," Forman said in explaining why he took the pictures. In the first frame, there is a fireman with his arm around a woman he is attempting to rescue from a burning apartment building. The woman clings to her child. The fireman is reaching for the rescue ladder an arm's length away. It appears that everything will be all right, that the woman and her child will be saved. This picture, by itself, does not foreshadow the tragedy to come. It is a dramatic photograph, to be certain, but one that would assure the viewer that confidence in the bravery and skills of firefighters is not misplaced.
The second photograph shows the fire escape pulling away from the building. Whereas the first photo makes the reader want to cheer, the second one reminds us that something can go wrong. The rescue is not successful until everyone is on the ground and safely away from the burning building. The photo shows, too, that the firefighter did everything he was supposed to do. His training prepared him for a moment such as this. More than anything else, this photo shows that courage and skill are not always enough. No one could have anticipated that the fire escape would pull away from the building. It is a picture that at once captures the good fortune of the woman in being rescued and the horrific moment when her luck turned.
The third photograph is the most dramatic because it shows the woman and her child falling through the air. The child, naturally, looks frightened. Her arms and legs are splayed and we see the speed of her descent with her shirt, which the air has pushed up to expose her round, babyish tummy. Her eyes are open and her mouth is distorted by a grimace.
The mother's fall is even more dramatic because she propels through the air headfirst. The viewer cannot see her face but can only imagine the horror reflected in her expression. It is impossible to know what the woman was thinking. Did she know that she was moments from death? Did she think about her child? Did she ask for God's help, or curse His failure to protect them? The woman is barefoot and she is wearing shorts. On a summer's day, it would be expected that someone be so attired at home. Yet the woman seems particularly vulnerable when dressed this way. She seems so exposed although, of course, long pants and shoes would not have made any difference to her survival.
Who was this woman? We cannot really know anything about her from the picture. We can see that she is young, with the long, gangling limbs of a teenager. She looks like a child and yet she also has a child of her own. The picture causes us to reflect on death made more tragic by the fact that, for this mother and child, they come too soon.
The falling flowerpots add to the poignancy of the photos. The apartment building, obviously older, represents urban life as experienced by someone who is young and poor. The flowers represent an attempt to add a little beauty to the surroundings. What sort of person is it who puts a flowerpot on a window ledge high above the city streets? The flowerpots give us a tiny glimpse into the character of the young woman. We feel we know a little more about her and that makes her death more tragic. To plant a flower is to feel hopeful about the future, and when we see the photograph, we know that the woman's hope in the future, unbeknownst to her, was misplaced. We feel a greater sense of loss.
But do we know her? Of course not. The shocking photo arouses emotion within us and, whether we realize it or not, causes us to ascribe thoughts and characteristics to the victim that we can never verify, even when reading the accompanying news story. Perhaps the young woman did not care at all about the plants. It is even possible that they were left there by a previous tenant of the apartment and went unnoticed by the young mother. Perhaps she did not notice beauty and felt no hope at all for the future she and her child would share. There is no way the viewer of the photograph can ever know any of this for certain.
The newsworthiness of the tragic fire is the photos themselves. Unfortunately, people die in fires in the United States all the time. The accounts of the fires are tragic, but as news stories they are usually only relevant to families and friends of the victims and the people who live in the community where the tragedy took place.
Photographer Forman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photos, expected to record an event with a far different outcome. He was taking advantage of a relatively new technology, a motor-driven camera that allowed a photographer to take a series of pictures in rapid succession. He expected to capture, in still photographs, the sequence of events leading up to a dramatic rescue. Instead, he captured the moments before death. The third photograph as the last that he took of the rescue attempt. "I realized what was going on," he said afterwards. "I completely turned around because I didn't want to see her hit."
The pictures are much more powerful than words in telling this story. It is not that words cannot sufficiently describe a scene or convey emotions. Author Stephen King is famous -- and wealthy -- because of his ability to construct tales that frighten us. John Grisham has used the power of words to make us feel outrage on the behalf of the underdogs whose stories he tells. Nicholas Sparks writes romances that bring some of his readers to tears.
Forman's pictures tell a story for which each individual viewer provides his own words. More than that, however, the pictures evoke an emotional response that is instantaneous, even quicker than words can form.
The pictures certainly drew attention to the event in a way that words alone would not. Newspaper editors know this and it can be argued that it was for the purpose of selling newspapers, not the imperative to show readers that death is part of life, which motivated them to print the pictures. Charges of sensationalism, voyeurism, and exploitation constituted many of the angry responses from readers. The reality is, though, that graphic images do capture people's attention.
A news story, without photographs, would have dehumanized the tragedy. When we read that a woman fell to her death, our reaction is not nearly as strong as seeing the picture. We may soon forget that a woman died, particularly in reading the story and learning that the child survived. The picture, on the other hand, makes us confront the notion of death head-on. We may experience, even for a fraction of a second, that shiver of fear of falling. We think about what it must have felt like to fall, and what it must have felt like to watch the horror unfold.
The fact that the woman and child were African-American also plays a part in judging the impact of the photo vs. A story in words. A written story might not mention race; in a photo, it is there to see. To some viewers, race might matter. People assumed, because the young woman was black, that the burning apartment building was in a ghetto, when in fact it was not. African-Americans might identify more strongly with the photo than they would with just a story; white readers might identify less. For some readers, and it is hoped that it means more of them, not less, race is a non-issue and what they see is not the color of the victims' skin but the horror expressed in their faces and body language. It is this horror that writer Ephron believes readers…