How to Handle an Unsettling Photo
A number of readers were upset today by the photos that showed Connie Culp of Cleveland before and after she became the nation’s first recipient of a face transplant. The photos appeared in The Post’s A section and at the top of washingtonpost.com’s homepage before being swapped out late this morning. The readers who contacted me were all reacting to the online photos, which can still be found elsewhere on the site.
“It is an upsetting image, so much so I’ve switched my home page to wsj.com after years of having it set to the Washington Post,” wrote reader Ray Cuadro. “Ignorance is bliss and I go out of my way to avoid such gruesome imagery.” He added that “greater discretion on your part would be appreciated.”
The “before” photo is unsettling to the squeamish. It shows Culp as she looked prior to a 22-hour operation last December, when doctors at the Cleveland Clinic replaced most of her face with skin, muscles, nerves, bone and blood vessels from a woman who had just died. Culp had been horribly disfigured in 2004 when her husband shot her in the face with a shotgun.
These are tough calls for editors who must weigh sensitivity with reality and the desire of readers to be informed. Editors often know in advance that an image will disturb some readers. But in this case, they also knew that many would want to see the dramatic difference in Culp's appearance.
Dee Swann, who plays a key role in photo selections at washingtonpost.com, said editors Tuesday night discussed the selection of images, including the “before” photo. She said they concluded that “the image was representative of the story -- it was the woman’s choice to come forward with her doctors to share the photos showing the success of her surgery,” and that the image, although graphic, "was not gory.” She said there was further discussion this morning about “moving the photo back in the home page rotation, so it was not the first photo a reader saw when they came to the home page.”
Swann said graphic photos are routinely discussed before they are posted. They’re considered on a “case by case basis, taking into consideration the story, how the photo relates to the story, how the subject is portrayed in the photo, our level of comfort in how the photo will be received by readers and where it will live on the site.” In some cases with potentially disturbing photos, she said, the decision may be made to “run it in a photo gallery behind a warning.”
My view: I think the photos were handled properly in the newspaper. They were small in size and were played on an inside page. The accompanying short wire story explained the extraordinary medical procedure. It would have been tempting to run only the “after” photo in the newspaper and then provide a Web address for the “before” photo. But that would be asking a lot of readers interested in the comparison. And many print readers do not go online.
I would have handled it differently online. The readers who contacted me all said the photo showing Culp’s pre-transplant disfigurement seemed to jump out at them on washingtonpost.com’s main page. Cuadro said when he saw the image, “I instantly put my hand up between my face and the monitor to obscure my vision.” An option would have been to feature only the “after” photo, while giving readers the opportunity to click on a link if they wished to view the “before” image.
Swann said other options could have included using only the "after" photo on the home page, but including both the "before" and "after" photos when a reader clicked to read the accompanying story. Or, she said, both photos could have been included in a "slideshow" accompanying the article, with the "after" image being first and the "before" image second.
Tell us how you would have handled it.
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