Why is society so jarred by images of death?

In the real world, opposition to an idea can sometimes question your own appreciation of that idea. In every walk of life, there are always individuals, or groups, who will resist an idea or belief. Their outlook can be directly opposite to any popular belief.

In the media industry, the beliefs of audiences are challenged all the time when viewing different forms of media. What makes this content special? What story is it trying to tell? Does this affect us positively or negatively?

Viewing this art is exciting for us as it gives audiences the chance to observe the media and self-reflect on how it emotionally impacted us.

However, in a world of political and social correctness, many different forms of art can be suppressed due to the concern of moral panic. The decision not to publish this art, warranted or not, undermines how we consume media.

I did some research into banned or controversial photos. I scrolled through image after image of those criticised for public display. After a while I recognised a common theme: death.

It seems that many of these criticised or banned photos have a close relationship to death, or they in fact are photos of death. So what is it about photography of death that makes it such a delicate taboo?

Embed from Getty Images

Before I start, I wish to outline that I will not be discussing the issue of whether or not it is morally justified to take and publish these images? I know there are many issues, both legally and ethically, surrounding the publication of these images. I will not discuss this in detail, but rather ask the question why do we, as an audience, become so disturbed by images of death?


It surrounds our lives every day.

We hear news stories recalling it, we read books describing it, we see movies commercialising it, and we may even become a witness to it. We live in communities where people we know do die, that is part of life.

As adults, we can become used to it because we have been exposed to it regularly. Sure, it still affects us: although maybe not as profoundly as in the early years of our lives.

Despite an increased tolerance for death within the media, society seems to be jarred by images of death.

Maybe this pain can have something to do with the context of the image? There may be an aspect of the photo that has a special relationship with the audience. For example, a photo of a dead soldier might emotionally affect someone who may have family members who have been in the military.


Photo Credit

Roeder, a WW2 photographer notes that “the longer the war went on, the more futile it seemed to suppress harsh pictures. Casualties within families or communities confronted more and more people with evidence of war’s capacity to kill and maim” (Roeder, 1995).

What about what is not seen in any photo.

Howard Becker notes in his book, ‘Visual Sociology’ that “If we think there is no context, that only means that the maker of the work has cleverly taken advantage of our willingness to provide the context for ourselves” (Becker, 1995).


Photo Credit

The above image helps illustrate Becker’s argument. We don’t know any additional information outside this image.

Is her mother just out of shot? Maybe the vulture is stalking another animal! Do we truly know this small girl is in immediate danger?

We don’t know any of this information, thus our mind generates our own series of events. When we manufacture our own context of the story we tend to assume the worst, making us have compassion for the subjects in the image.

One of the biggest issues of these photos is the suffering it causes the audience. They may be raw images that are confronting and evocative, forcing the reader to peer for only a mere second before having to turn away.

Although, there is an underlying paradox in how we digest these images.

The negative effects of death force us to feel sadness and have empathy for the subjects in the image. This sadness can at times, however, fill us with slight fulfilment. We recognise the bounds of our humanity, the ability to feel empathy for those depicted in the images, and their very confronting circumstances.

This does not mean we necessarily still welcome the image- as it still causes us suffering- rather we appreciate our ability to empathise.

When we petition against publishing images of death, we take away their true target. By saying certain images cannot be published, because of a fear to offend or anger individuals, we are identifying the audience as the sufferer and not the subjects in the image. This filters and blurs the story trying to be told by the photographer: and certainly the narrative of the deceased.

Think of it this way.

Might we be doing the victims a disservice if we do not publish such hard-hitting photographs?

If you had died a violent and unjust death, wouldn’t you want the world to know all the details surrounding that death? (Tooth, 2014)

Extra insight into the world of being a photo editor




Roeder, George. “The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two”. Google Books. N.p., 1995. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.


Becker, Howard. “Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, And Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All A Matter Of Context: Visual Sociology: Vol 10, No 1-2”. Tandfonline.com. N.p., 1995. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.


Tooth, Roger. “Graphic Content: When Photographs Of Carnage Are Too Upsetting To Publish”. the Guardian. N.p., 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.



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