The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish

A person lies dead as Ukrainians flee the Irpin area on the outskirts of Kyiv. A photo of carnage from the same town led the New York Times's front page on March 7. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
7 min

The scene was ghastly. Four people lay sprawled on the pavement in the immediate aftermath of a mortar strike on civilians fleeing a Ukrainian town Sunday morning. A mother and two children were already dead as soldiers knelt over a man who had been with the family, frantically trying to save him as he took his last breaths.

A New York Times photographer approached from behind a nearby building and aimed her camera.

Like many war images, Lynsey Addario’s photo of the dead and dying was never guaranteed to be published. Newsrooms have for decades been cautious when it comes to displaying such graphic images, weighing the journalistic benefits of chronicling the horror against the distress it might cause readers and the victims’ families.

But, as their colleagues around the world have done with many other disturbing images from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Times’s photo editors decided that, in this case, exposing the war’s brutality outweighed decorum. Addario’s photo led the Times’s website Sunday, and was splashed across the top of the front page of the print newspaper on Monday, spanning five of its six columns.

“The image was so exceptionally graphic that the conversation was elevated to a high level [among editors] fairly quickly,” said Meaghan Looram, the newspaper’s director of photography. “But the sentiment was universal. This was a photograph that the world needed to see to understand what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.”

Scenes of war have shocked the public’s conscience ever since photojournalists could reach the battlefield. Americans were shaken by the first photo of dead infantrymen published by Life magazine in 1943 during World War II, and by footage of Marines killed in action in the 1944 documentary “With the Marines at Tarawa.” Photographs of a suspected Viet Cong collaborator being executed and a girl screaming in pain from napalm burns helped turn the American public against the Vietnam War.

More recent crises have produced images that have drawn condemnation, praise and revulsion, such as that of a drowned migrant toddler in Greece in 2015, an elderly man in his bombed-out apartment in Syria in 2017, and the bodies of a father and daughter who sought to enter the United States from Mexico in 2019.

Images of violence and death are abundant in Russia’s war on Ukraine — due in part to a proliferation of cellphone cameras, drones and other modern technology, but also because of the indiscriminate effect of Russian munitions on civilians. The Ukrainian government has been posting photos of dead Russian soldiers to social media in an effort to turn public opinion against the war.

Deciding which images should be shown to readers and viewers is always a challenge, and journalists are the first to admit they don’t always get it right — that a graphic image can trigger complaints about exploitation or gratuitousness. Conversely, some readers have criticized news organizations for falling short of conveying a war’s true effect on people.

Looram, the Times’s director of photography, said she was stunned when she first saw Addario’s photo of the mortar attack on Sunday morning, which was taken in Irpin, outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. She knew it would upset some of the New York Times’s readers. But she also grasped its significance.

“It showed civilians who were deliberately targeted while on a known evacuation route, a possible war crime,” she said. “To my mind, it was the event that happened here that was horrific. The photograph that documented that horror was necessary.”

Looram said editors had no question about publishing the photograph, but there was “an extensive discussion” about how to display it and whether to warn readers that they were about to encounter something disturbing. They added a disclaimer on social media platforms, where people might unwittingly see the image, but not on the Times’s website or in print, where readers usually make an affirmative decision to seek news.

As with similar debates in other newsrooms, the decision was subjective and made on a deadline. Photo editors say there are no hard-and-fast rules for sorting newsworthy war images from more questionable ones; just professional judgment and experience. “It’s like that old Supreme Court opinion [defining pornography]: We know it when we see it,” said MaryAnne Golon, The Washington Post’s director of photography.

In a pre-digital world, photo editors tended to use the “breakfast-table test”: Would an image prove upsetting to a reader opening a newspaper over breakfast? But Golon said that standard is outmoded in an era where video games and other re-creations of violence have gradually desensitized viewers.

There are still some general principles. Major news outlets tend to avoid publishing photos that show victims’ faces or excessive gore. The idea is not just to cushion the emotional shock to readers and viewers but to spare friends and relatives of the dead.

The Times’s decision to publish Addario’s photograph was unusual in that respect. The faces of three of the four victims are clearly identifiable. The man, who briefly survived the mortar explosion before succumbing, according to an article accompanying the photo, lies turned upward, blood visible on his face and hands.

There are even more gruesome images in newsroom photo libraries, some of which may never be published.

Los Angeles Times photographer Marcus Yam shot the bloody aftermath of a firefight between Ukrainian and Russian forces last week, including photos showing a beheaded soldier and a disembodied heart. The paper did not publish these images, but described the battle in an article alongside a different, less jarring set of photos. “Sometimes words are more powerful than a photo,” said Calvin Hom, the newspaper’s executive director of photography.

Time, place and subject can also affect publishing decisions.

Photos and videos of American soldiers killed in combat are rarely published by mainstream news organizations, and often provoke outrage when they do appear. Hom said many readers accused his newspaper of disrespect last year, when it published a photo showing the coffins of American service members killed in Kabul being loaded into trucks.

On the other hand, Hom said, some readers have complained that withholding graphic images of violent events sanitizes and distorts the truth.

The passage of time can change public perception. Only a few publications initially carried a photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, of a man hurtling to his death from the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Those that did run it were criticized for insensitivity. But the “Falling Man” photo has since become a grim icon of that day, widely published on 9/11 anniversaries, according to the AP’s director of photography, J. David Ake.

Ake’s organization typically distributes about 3,000 news photographs a day to hundreds of outlets around the world, making it perhaps the largest source of daily photojournalism. But only a small fraction of its output depicts violence, he said. ″We try to keep in mind [a victim’s] dignity, even in death,” he said.

In some respects, digital technology can help journalists control the impact of disturbing images, Golan said. Photos can be presented with context in online galleries or locked behind graphic-content warnings, for example.

Looram said many New York Times readers thanked the newspaper for publishing Addario’s photo prominently, with some “grieving the loss of this family and so much more suffering, and praising Lynsey’s courageous work.”

Addario, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also posted the photo to social media, where it has been shared and liked tens of thousands of times. Some viewers called it “heartbreaking,” or “gutting.”

On Monday, the photo made it to the U.S. Capitol when Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) presented an enlarged version on the Senate floor to call attention to the brutality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign in Ukraine.

Instead of ending up buried in a photo archive, the image became something more: a symbol and a rallying cry.