November 23, 2011

AUSTRALIA: "Distressing images reveal the truth in a way words alone cannot"

SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / National / November 23, 2011

By Judy Prisk
Readers Editor
The Sydney Morning Herald

Controversial ... the photograph that raised many a reader's ire. 
Photo: Dallas Kilpone

Nine elderly people are dead, killed by a fire at the Quakers Hill Nursing Home on Friday morning. Several others are fighting for their lives. The horror was described as ''a firefighter's worst nightmare''.

There were heroes: a couple of young policemen entered the burning building with little protection; a neighbour jumped the fence and began hosing people down; firefighters were crawling through the flames and smoke to drag frail people from their beds. There was a dark side: police suspected arson.

This was a shocking, heart-chilling story involving the most vulnerable people and their families. Anyone who has had a mother, father, husband, wife or sibling in a nursing home would have felt a shiver of cold fear. Newspapers, radio and TV gave the public as much information as quickly as possible, and pictures and stories were read by hundreds of thousands on websites, including

Related report by Chi Tranter

A walking frame. A wheelchair. A blanket that once warmed a frail body. A charred cross crafted from debris from the Quakers Hill nursing home.
They were all grim mementos.
The rain poured down as hundreds of mourners gathered in the Quakers Hill Anglican church on Wednesday to remember the nine elderly victims of last week's blaze.
The front page of Saturday's Herald carried the story that arson was suspected (a nurse at the home, Roger Dean, was charged with murder on Saturday morning) and that the owners of the home had breached accreditation standards. But the six-column photo of elderly residents waiting to be evacuated had many readers apoplectic.

Some examples: ''I think it showed gross insensitivity having such a photo splashed over the front page … As if it hadn't been enough trauma for those patients without exposing them in such an undignified manner … Shame on the photographer and the Herald.''

And, ''How was it 'in the public interest' to publish photographs of distressed folk being evacuated from the Quakers Hill nursing home fire?'' And, ''While the circumstances of the story regarding the fire and death of several people in the aged care facility are extremely distressing I am equally appalled at your decision to publish photographs that clearly identify the people on the beds. The people concerned are clearly not in a position to express consent and I strongly believe their rights have been breached by showing very private material so publicly.''

Once again I face the ire of readers about a page one image. Although I agree the picture was heartbreaking,

I disagree that publishing it was ''a gratuitous and unseemly exposure of elderly people in distress'', as another reader wrote.

I salute those among you who do not need photographs to comprehend the unutterable misery caused by the fire, but the vulnerability and frailty of the victims so graphically exposed in Dallas Kilponen's work first brought me to tears and then to anger. I believe, and hope, many readers shared those emotions.

It is information - unsanitised, real and often uncomfortable - that effects change. Running an image of firefighters and emergency workers and not the elderly victims, as a reader suggested, would not have told the story, the story that those brave men and women had to deal with.

As one editor said, the selected image brought home to her the violation of trust perpetrated upon the elderly residents. It also showed real life, as wretched as it was.

Yes, the victims were identifiable. No, they did not give consent - they were certainly not in a position to do that. News photographers do not need permission to take news shots in a public place. Consider the picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl whose naked image running away from napalm clouds is an iconic symbol of the Vietnam War. Its publication, shocking, identifiable and taken without consent, became a defining indictment against the war.

The ghastly photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison and published around the world were taken without consent and identified the victims of extraordinary abuse. The searing images taken by Fairfax photographers after the Bali bombings in 2002, photos taken without permission and with identifiable people, burnt that travesty on to Australia's soul. The Indian Ocean tsunami photos, a boggle-your-brain vision of a hell on earth … I could go on.

There was much discussion in news conference about which images of the nursing home fire would be used. The choice was wide and left little to the imagination. There have been editors who would not use pictures of elderly people ''because they don't sell papers''. I know not whether that front-page image sold papers, but I do know readers needed to see it and the others, if only to have their emotions pierced so that calls for increased supervision of nursing homes are loud and strong. We never want to see a story like this again.

Several readers asked why The Sun-Herald and the Herald published unpixellated images of the man accused of setting the fire. Our lawyers advised that there was no legal reason to pixellate, so publishing Dean's photograph did not constitute the miscarriage of justice some readers were fearful of.

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