Last week the world witnessed a tyrant come to a bloody end on a global stage.
Gaddafi’s death was probably fitting given the nature of the riots that saw him ousted from power, and his departure from politics will undoubtedly be celebrated by many. The news of his demise should have been received with a degree of relief, but his death, which was more akin to a lynching, marred the start of Libya’s liberation. It seemed to bypass judicial process in favour of mob mentality. Although it may be convenient to avoid a long, drawn-out trial, it cannot be beneficial to the nascent Libyan democracy that its first significant event is so inherently undemocratic.
The images of an old broken man on death’s door were a far cry from a man who ruled a country with an iron fist, and they could well come to symbolize the day. The pictures, bloody and hard to stomach, told more than the mere events of his death. Capturing his complete fall from power, at the mercy of a few unnamed Libyans, they highlight the debate around the circumstances of his death.
Debate has nonetheless arisen over the need to print the pictures, given their gruesome nature. This is an issue that we at Redbrick face on a day to day basis, and it varies from a small swear word in the middle of a piece to a debate over a front page photo. It isn’t always an easy line to draw between what is shocking for the sake of a sensational front page, and what is shocking because the piece merits sensation.
The photos of Gaddafi’s last moments did not just capture his death, but shed light onto the complexity of the Arab spring and conflict as a whole, suggesting that war can turn the most innocent men into tyrants, and tyrants into victims. Pictures can define a period, a mood, or a scene in ways that words could never do. Thomas Hoepker’s infamous 9/11 photo did just the same, as did Nick Ut’s image of the Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack. Photos like these can give stories context, weight and change an entire mood. On most issues, newspapers err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to defamation or privacy law - and justifiably so. I believe photography could be the exception to that rule. Avoiding publishing pictures of great significance defies some of the most basic principles of good, ethical journalism, whether by giving them less prominence or editing them for fear that your audience may object.
As much as we may try, Redbrick by definition is not a professional outfit. It is a group of volunteers who, driven by various goals, work towards a print and online edition, week in and week out. We have, do and will get things wrong from time to time. All we can do is endeavour to push for the stories that would not usually see the light of day, present them as they are, striving to remaining impartial and avoiding bias, even if by doing so we risks offending those who do not want to contend with the harshness of reality.