A Philosopher's Blog

Pictures of the Dead

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2011
Princess Diana on a royal visit for the offici...

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In addition to the fact that the both died violent deaths, Bin Laden and Princess Diana both share the fact that their post death pictures have generated controversy. In the case of Bin Laden, the decision was made to not release the photos of his corpse. In the case of Princess Diana, the infamous paparazzi photo of her death is featured in the upcoming film Unlawful Killing.

As far as the legality of the matter, this is easy enough to settle. Obama certainly has the legal right to not release the photos of Bin Laden. Legal steps can be taken to have the photos released, of course. In the case of the photo of Princess Diana, it is perfectly legal for it to be shown, at least in the United States and France. The UK is less enamored of the freedom of the press and the film will, as of this writing, not be shown there. What is more interesting than the legality is the matter of ethics.

The main argument given against the release of the Bin Laden photo is that it would incite people to violence. From a moral standpoint, this can be seen as a utilitarian argument (or simply as a pragmatic argument): releasing the photo would have harmful consequences, therefore it should not be done.

Given the power of images, this does have a certain appeal. An image of the dead Bin Laden would certainly have more emotional impact than the mere statement that he is dead. However, it also seems reasonable to consider the obvious: if killing Bin Laden would not inspire a person to violence, then seeing a photo most likely would not push the person over the edge. As such, this argument is not particularly strong. Perhaps a better reason can be found by considering the death photo of Princess Diana.

One argument that can be used in the case of Princess Diana is that such a photo should not be shown out of respect for her and her family. On the face of it, it seems reasonable to hold that a graphic death photo should not be shown unless there is a compelling reason to show the photo. As such, the burden of proof would be on those who contend such a photo should be shown.

In some cases compelling reasons can be given. For example, the photo of Princess Diana was shown (with her face blurred) during the investigation of the crash that killed her. This sort of use seems to be legitimate. Another example would be when showing the picture serves a laudable purpose, such as revealing the true horror of war or crime. However, to show such an image merely to amuse, shock, or make money would seem to be morally unjustified. This is not to say that such a showing should be prohibited by law. Rather, it is to say that it should not be done. If this line of reasoning is solid, then the film should not include the picture-unless it can be shown that there is compelling reason to include the image.

Turning back to Bin Laden, it is rather tempting to hold the view that he is not worthy of such respect. After all, he planned the deaths of thousands and showed no concern over the harm he did to them or their families. As such, there would be no compelling reason to not show his image so as to protect his dignity. In fact, it could be argued that if showing the photo would somehow harm him or those who care about him, then this would be a reason to show them.

That said, I do believe that an appeal to dignity can be made against showing the picture of Bin Laden and the picture of Princess Diana.

In the case of Bin Laden, showing the graphic photo would not be an unjust affront to his dignity. However, it would be an undignified act on our part. While it is tempting to take a trophy from a fallen foe and parade it about in bloody splendor, we should be better than that and it should be beneath our dignity as a people.  Just as we pride ourselves on not wantonly slaughtering innocents, we should also pride ourselves on not showing graphic images of  Bin Laden. In short, if we claim we are better than our enemies, we need to actually act better than they do and this includes not treating the dead as trophies.

In the case of Princess Diana, showing the graphic photo of her would seem to be a clear demonstration of the lack of dignity of those who elected to show the photo (presumably to attract attention to the film). As such, this is something that they should not do-after all, they should be better people. Naturally, if it can be shown that the image is being used in a way that is compelling (because it is critical to the aesthetic value of the film, for example) then it could be used in a way consistent with dignity.

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2 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on May 13, 2011 at 1:47 am


    The photos of the burnt corpses of the American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq (2004) won the Pulitzer Prize. But we get no bin Laden photos…

    Burnt American ‘mercenaries’ is cool, I guess, and in fact is high art. Dead terrorists though are just too shocking for us to handle.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 13, 2011 at 10:54 am

      As you note, the “too shocking” argument is a weak one. After all, “shocking” photos/videos are regularly shown and it seems difficult to argue that the Bin Laden photos should be a special exception to this standard practice.

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