Monday, May 18, 2009


I was interested in the 3 News item on Nikki Catsouras last night. (If you never heard of this, Ms Catsouras was killed in a high-speed crash, and crash-scene investigation photos of her almost-decapitated body were published on the internet after California Highway Patrol staff emailed them to friends in an egregious breach of CHP policy. Her parents unsuccessfully took the CHP to court for invasion of their daughter's privacy by failing to secure the photos. Wikipedia article - if you want the photos, look for them yourself)

As a one-time publisher of car-crash photos myself, I have some thoughts on the matter. The fact is, a lot of people are interested in car crashes - hell, J.G. Ballard wrote a whole book about it. I'm one of those people. The fact also is, a lot of people are interested in seeing severely or fatally damaged human bodies. To some extent I'm also one of those people - wouldn't go looking for such photos, but look with interest if I come across one. I don't see any moral problem with that - given the number of people into this stuff, I believe an interest in violent death is hard-wired into us. However, I do think there's a moral line between publishing pictures of severely-damaged cars, which are simply interesting objects, and publishing pictures of severely-damaged people, who should not be treated as objects (even when dead, at which point they are objects - objectively speaking). At bottom these photos are all about death and serious injury, whether there's a human in them or not, but the ones with a human in them are a gross abuse of the human involved and anyone who cared about them.

That said, I don't think there's a right not to be photographed, and the world's photojournalism books are full of pictures of dead Third Worlders who are different from Ms Catsouras only in that their families don't have easy access to lawyers and TV news crews. It's easy to understand the Catsouras family's pain, but a court-enforced ban on publishing photographs of people who haven't signed a waiver would be an unjustified curtailment of freedom of expression.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Forgive me Milt but I can't resist the mental image of the intrepid journalist, bending over the mortally injured passenger with his guts hanging down around his knees, demanding the poor bastard signs the waver before he croaks. Offering him fifty bucks, even.

Psycho Milt said...

Getting dead people to sign a waiver is of course problematic...