drawing the line

Via Institute for Artist Management
Jodi Bieber's photo of a young Afghan woman who was horribly mutilated by her own husband per order of the Taliban was featured on the cover of TIME magazine last summer. Today, the South-African documentary photographer was notified in the early morning hours that her image was chosen  at the 54th World Press Photo awards as the World Press Photo of the Year 2010

All major online photo media resources reported this event throughout the day, many of them, again, asking questions about ethics, morality, and where to draw the line in photo journalism.

Should a photo like this, which depicts cruelty and abuse, be selected for a prestigious award, should it be chosen for a magazine cover, shown to the public, or even, should it have been taken at all?

Time Magazine was accused of 'exploiting' the girl to 'defend occupation' - their article was titled 'What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan?' In this context, the photo may not have been a very wise choice, since the mutilation of the girl took place even though the country was (and is still) occupied by foreign troops. But that was not the point in the discussions. 

Richard Stengel, Managing Editor at TIME, wrote back in July 2010:
"I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha's safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort. 
I'm acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. Some think children are so used to seeing violence in the media that the image will have little effect, but others believe that children will find it very scary and distressing — that they will see it, as Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, said, as "a symbol of bad things that can happen to people." I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image's impact."

The British Journal of Photography today quotes Vince Aletti, member of the jury who chose Bieber's photo for the award: 'There were people who wondered if some of the images were pornographic. [...] It was a reaction I remember after 9/11, when some people felt that images of the Falling Man should not have been photographed. I don't agree. I think it's important to show these things - nothing should be off limits, no matter how shocking or upsetting they are.'

The Center for Fine Art Photography, on their Facebook page, was "Wondering if outcries of "too graphic" simply mask disbelief at the atrocity one human can inflict on another... Where should photographers draw the line (if there is a line to be drawn)?"

If there were a line to be drawn, I would draw it at the point where my camera would obstruct humanity, instead of supporting it: We must not shoot the drowning (wo)man, if we can save them from drowning by putting our camera down. 

In this case, Jodi Bieber shows cruelty, but she was not there when it was inflicted upon Aisha, and couldn't have done anything to prevent it. The way she photographed her is not a freak show way. It's a classic portrait, full of dignity and beauty. 

Jodi Bieber's original feature about Afghan women on the website of her agency, the Institute For Artist Management, can be viewed here.


  1. When I look at it, I see dignity and beauty, too. I think it's a reflection of the photographer and the woman herself that her dignity comes through even stronger than shock of realization of what happened to her.

  2. How did our society get to a point where we are not only shielding the eyes of our children, but "protecting" the general public from distressing images? How did we get from graphic and effective images that came out of the Vietnam war to this discussion? HOW? The above image is important for the rest of the world to see, it's important for kids to see for what it is, a means of sharing information about what's happening in the world, as a means of asking people to consider their responses and from it develop compassion and perhaps activism.

    If children are too young for such strong images their parents should be the ones to cover their eyes. This "line" is not one for media resources to be considering.

  3. This comment was left on my red pencil photo today, in Dutch - I've translated it:

    'It happens in the Netherlands too, it is not that it's a show far from home, abuse comes in different forms in each country.
    I've read the article and this is a discussion that just continues, where is the responsibility of the photographer?

    As a news photographer you're working in that capacity, you're no hero, no Jesus, no savior, you register a particular reality.

    The emotions that such a reality triggers too often target the photographer as a person, a kind of misplaced indignation of the public. Because he registers a reality, must he at the same time prettify that reality by undertaking an action so that we can feel better again?

    I think you really need to distinguish such things, a photographer will often have high risks going in dangerous areas/ situations, as people will often feel powerless, but his or her task is to transport that reality by a certain medium and that is quite something, because then we can see all kinds of realities, also the realities that are painful to watch.