What the New York Times should have considered before putting bodies of African migrants on its cover

Migrants arrive in Italy after a rescue operation.
Migrants arrive in Italy after a rescue operation.
Image: Reuters/ Antonio Parrinello
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Last Tuesday, the AFP photojournalist Aris Messinis was on board a rescue boat off the coast of Libya, when it came across a flotilla of rafts and one larger wooden boat all dangerously overloaded with human beings in desperate straits.

Messinis photographed the rescue. A portfolio of his images, with a short accompanying text, was the front-page feature in the New York Times, in print and online, on Thursday. The images show human beings packed in cramped spaces, humans adrift, humans on the verge of drowning, humans swimming or hoisted to safety.

Two of the images show dead human beings. We see a pile of them, in the middle of a narrow rubber boat. The body atop the pile is splayed out, nearly naked.

In one image, a large number of people in the boat surround and step across these bodies. That image became the print front-page photograph. In the other, the rescue is nearly finished; the last few men are coming off the boat, stepping around the dead. This was the picture the Times displayed with the story whenever you shared the story on social media—Black corpses on their followers’ timelines.

It’s a familiar debate. When the crisis is grave and the bodies in agony are Black (or subaltern), on what terms should they be shown, let alone foregrounded? One view holds that disaster must be shown and its tragic cost revealed. Another holds that the display reproduces the indignity, and that creating “awareness” can reinforce trauma given the condition of white supremacy.

News organizations err in the former direction; they’re built that way. Too often, however, their choices suggest they are unaware of the latter view – or that they accord it no validity.

How else to explain the Times’s decision to put Black corpses on the print and digital front page and the social sharing utility? The point here was to show the dead, more than the rescue. Indeed, the online feature was titled “Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Boat,” though Messinis’s images showed many other things.

Strange, too, was the framing of the text, which centered Messinis. “What a photographer saw when a rescue vessel went into action off the Libyan coast,” reads the online subtitle. The print headline was: “Witness to a Perilous Crossing.”

But hold the outrage over the photographer having a name and a voice while the hordes in agony go unnamed. The more serious issue is that centering the photographer means unloading on him the moral burden in play.

It wasn’t the photographer’s decision to filter his material in the most sensational way possible. Ending the text with a quote from him, comparing the boats to slave ships, a highly charged analogy, compounds his role as the story’s moral agent. He is made to stand in, not just for the reader, but for the whole editorial chain.

By coincidence, also on Thursday, a member of the European Parliament from the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Steven Woolfe, was knocked out by a punch from a fellow UKIP MEP in the parliament building. A British TV station posted a photo of Woolfe unconscious on the floor. Outrage ensued on British social media about the poor taste (or not) of running this picture.

Perhaps the Mediterranean refugee and migrant crisis is catastrophic enough that it requires a more explicit documentation of humans in horrific situations, even when we don’t know their names and give them no agency in their portrayal. It’s a reasonable argument. But let’s not pretend that different standards aren’t in play.

If we acknowledged – deeply – the role of coerced Black agony in the construction of our world, and its persistence in domestic and global social relations, we might find ways to advance “awareness” that do not fetishize Black death and spread trauma in the process. It might take a little work in the newsroom and editorial meetings. It’s work worth doing.