WASHINGTON — After Lenny Pozner’s six-year-old son Noah died at Sandy Hook, he briefly contemplated showing the world the damage an AR-15-style rifle did to his child.
His first thought: “It would move some people, change some minds.”
His second: “Not my kid.”
Grief and anger over two horrific mass shootings in Texas and New York only ten days apart has stirred an old debate: Would disseminating graphic images of the results of gun violence jolt the nation’s gridlocked leadership into action?
From the abolition movement to Black Lives Matter, from the Holocaust to the Vietnam War to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, photographs and film have laid bare the human toll of racism, authoritarianism and ruinous foreign policy. They prompt public outcry and, sometimes, lead to change. But the potential use of these images to end official inertia after mass shootings presents new, wrenching considerations for victims’ families — many of whom adamantly reject such an idea.
“It is true that shocking photos of suffering occasionally do make an imprint,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, citing the photographer Nick Ut’s famous photo of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack in 1972.
“What makes this a challenging ethics call is that when you’re a photo editor, you never really do know which is the photograph that is going to seem exploitative, and what image will touch the conscience of people and move the needle on the debate.”
Mainstream news organizations sometimes show disturbing images of people who have died to illustrate the horrors of an event, like the photograph by Lynsey Addario of a mother, two children and a family friend killed in March in Irpin, Ukraine, or the image of a three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy whose body washed ashore in Turkey in 2015. But they rarely show human gore.
“We’re always trying to balance the news value of an image and its service to our readers against whether or not the image is dignified for the victims or considerate toward the families or loved ones of those pictured,” said Meaghan Looram, the director of photography at The New York Times. “We don’t want to withhold images that would help people to understand what has happened in scenarios like these, but we also don’t publish images sheerly as provocation.”
In the case of the Uvalde shooting, photojournalists were not allowed on the grounds of the school, and law enforcement did not release any images from the crime scene. Press photographers were only able to capture what was visible outside the school, including the images made by Pete Luna from the Uvalde Leader News, who witnessed children fleeing a classroom after climbing through a window. Media outlets had no access to images of the shooting’s aftermath, so decisions about whether to publish graphic images from this situation are moot.
Noah Pozner was among the first children buried after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 first graders and six educators. Noah hid with 15 classmates in the classroom bathroom, a 4½ by 3½-foot space into which the gunman fired more than 80 rounds from a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, killing all but one child.
Bullets tore through Noah’s back, arm, hand and face, destroying most of his jaw. Mr. Pozner and Noah’s mother, Veronique De La Rosa, held a private, open-coffin viewing before his funeral service, which was attended by Dannel Malloy, Connecticut’s governor at the time. When Mr. Malloy arrived, Ms. De La Rosa took him by the hand to see her son, lying in a mahogany coffin in a room at the back of a funeral home in Fairfield, Conn.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to pass out. She’s going to show me open wounds and I’m not going to handle it very well,’” Mr. Malloy said in an interview for my book “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.”
The damage to Noah’s mouth was hidden by a square of white fabric, so Mr. Malloy was not shown raw wounds. “I wouldn’t have taken it to that level,” Ms. De La Rosa said. But the governor “was still looking at a dead child,” she said. “A child who practically the day before had been running around like a little locomotive, full of life.”
The Murder of Emmett Till
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman.
After Sandy Hook, Connecticut passed some of the most stringent gun safety measures in the nation.
But there was a different outcome around the same time, when the filmmaker Michael Moore proposed the release of crime scene photos by the Sandy Hook victims’ relatives as a way to spur political action. The Sandy Hook families mistakenly thought that Mr. Moore, who had written, produced and directed the 2002 documentary, “Bowling for Columbine,” about the 1999 Colorado high school shooting, intended to seek photos of their children through public records requests. They lobbied the Connecticut government for strict legislation barring access to materials related to the victims. Photos of Sandy Hook victims are now accessible only by their families.
“If the families say ‘I think we should show this,’ I think we should listen to them,” said Emily Bernard, an author and professor of English at the University of Vermont.
“But people who have access to those photos and are inclined to disseminate them have to ask themselves, who benefits? Is this going to enlighten us or offer any solutions, or is it just horrible?”
In a 2020 seminar at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma titled “Picturing Black Deaths,” Professor Bernard discussed a Civil War-era photograph of a formerly enslaved man, called Gordon in some historic references and Peter in others. Disseminated by abolitionists, the image of the shirtless man, his back severely scarred from beatings, “was essential to the development of the campaign against slavery,” she said.
In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley invited a Jet magazine photographer, David Jackson, to photograph the brutalized body of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, who had been savagely beaten, shot and dumped into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi by two white men who were speedily acquitted. The images, and Emmett Till’s open coffin at his funeral in Chicago, helped ignite the civil rights movement.
In 2020, the cellphone video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, which was filmed by Darnella Frazier, a teenage witness, sparked global fury and some of the largest protests in American history. But the recording also kindled a fraught discussion over the ubiquity of images of violence against Black people, and the relatively few depictions of white victims.
“For all the political utility of these videos and these images, for all of their motivational usefulness in terms of getting people out into the street or clarifying exactly what is going on, I’m not at all certain that it’s ethical or right to display these images in this way,” Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker and incoming dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, said in the Columbia seminar.
“For horrific crimes we tend not to see white Americans displayed in the same way. We will see white people abroad, perhaps,” Mr. Cobb said. (Charles Porter IV’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a firefighter, Chris Fields, cradling a fatally wounded infant after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is an exception.)
Some journalists, academics and survivors have proposed releasing photos of the scenes of violence, instead of the victims, as a potentially powerful but less invasive approach. In 2014, after Taliban fighters attacked a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing at least 134 schoolchildren, wire services released images of the school’s bloody classrooms.
“I can imagine some pictures that could be made without dehumanizing the victims that speak to the story of the AR-15, which is a story that has not been seen or fully told,” said Nina Berman, a documentary photographer, filmmaker and Columbia journalism professor.
“The smashed windows, the smashed desks, the utter destruction of the room by this weapon which is designed only to obliterate humans. That’s where the political conversation is right now: Why are we arming ourselves with an AR-15? Why do our lawmakers think this is anything the Constitution ever considered?”
But American journalists “don’t even have access to try and make these pictures,” Ms. Berman said. Crime scenes are rapidly cordoned off and photographers banned. Police restrict access to crime scene photos sometimes for months or years after the investigation ends. As a result, the most vivid scenes, such as the carnage after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing or the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, are often captured outdoors.
“For a culture so steeped in violence, we spend a lot of time preventing anyone from actually seeing that violence,” Ms. Berman said. “Something else is going on here, and I’m not sure it’s just that we’re trying to be sensitive.”
After his son’s death Mr. Pozner devoted his life to battling conspiracy theorists who spread false claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was a government hoax, intended to promote efforts at gun control. He is unconvinced that releasing Noah’s photo would have changed much.
“Everything would just get amplified,” he said. “Hoaxers will have more things to deny, absolutists will have more things to say — and people who are traumatized by mass shootings will be more traumatized.”