Photographing Death: The Observer Versus The Participator



On the 15th April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forrest. The circumstances surrounding this disaster still resonate as a contemporary issue in political and media debate particularly with regards to the conduct of journalism in relation to ‘disaster news.’ The main area of focus in my research has been the longstanding effects that the media portrayal of the disaster has had not only upon the families of the victims but also Liverpool as a city. Photographs played a central role in this portrayal, permeating every available inch of British Newspapers, three of which I have included within this post in order to hopefully create an understanding of the scene of chaos these images presented.

For this weeks task I have decided to link my chosen dissertation topic of the Hillsborough Disaster with the idea of the photographer as a participant and witness to death which we touched upon in last week’s class. Focusing momentarily upon Eddie Adams’ photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem, an interesting awareness of role presents itself in the form of Adams’ retrospective unease. Following the success of his image, Adams came to regret his role in the production of the image, stating how, ‘I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.’ This poses the questions, does the photographer adopt an active or passive role in the company of death? How much responsibility lies with the person shooting the camera not the gun?

Hillsborough presented itself as somewhat unique in that media-personnel witnessed the unfolding of events live and first hand, no longer simply reporting but instead commentating upon the national disaster. Many photographers became personally involved in aiding the rescue of those injured, however many continued with their job, photographing the tragedy and documenting the chaos in attempts to make sense of what was happening for both television and newspaper reports. Does this taint their photographs with the death of the 96 or does this indeed cast them instead in the braver role, true and uncompromising in faithfulness to their vocation? Sontag observes the general guidelines of tabloids and 24 hour headline news as “If it bleeds, it leads.” It is common knowledge that death and brutality dominate news coverage, with images center stage in their role to shock, startle and engage attention, as “when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite.” Images taken of the Hillsborough disaster support this notion with one photograph in particular burnt into the memory of many, the image of crushed fans being carried away on advertising banners that had been ripped from the surrounding sides of the stadium.

The image that particularly resonates with me as I continue to write my dissertation is the photograph that actually depicts the crush against the fencing of the pen. The frame is entirely filled, bursting with movement and horror and the mangling of limbs and heads in the struggle results in one united body, reaching out of the image in attempts to escape the unbearable weight and pressure. This I feel personifies the tragedy, a metaphor for the struggle of the victims’ families to obtain justice.

‘Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.’ – Susan Sontag


One Response to “Photographing Death: The Observer Versus The Participator”

  1. Hi, it’s Rick! I seem to be unable to post on the blog (I might not have been added) but I’ve posted my thing at the address below

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