News & Politics

Debate Grows Over Use of Sexual Assault Photo

A previously unpublished photo of a sexual assault at Seattle's 2001 Mardi Gras won a major photojournalism prize -- and raised difficult questions about privacy.
There was nothing photographer Mike Urban could do except snap.

A staff photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Urban was in downtown Seattle's Pioneer Square covering the 2001 Mardi Gras celebration, which had erupted into rioting that would leave one man dead.

From his perch on a fire escape, he saw a group of young men start up the typical Mardi Gras chant demanding that a woman bare her breasts. She refused and they attacked. In an incident that, according to the newspaper, echoed several others that night, her clothes were ripped off and she was groped by dozens of hands before escaping. Urban caught it all on film.

Until recently, none of the pictures Urban took of the assault had been published. Like most newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a policy against naming rape and sexual assault victims, and, as executive editor Ken Bunting said, "If the intent in not publishing the name of a rape victim is not to subject her to further trauma and humiliation, certainly publishing her likeness, her partially unclad body, is taking it several steps too far." Instead, the paper turned the photos over to the police and ran a front-page story that described the attacks without printing details that might identify the victims.

Poynter Institute Omits Picture from Web Site

But last month, one of Urban's pictures won first place in the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism contest in the domestic news-newspaper category. The contest's winning photographs have been published on the association's Web site and will appear on CD-ROM and in a book. The picture of the assaulted woman, splayed out like a sacrifice, hands grabbing her breasts and genitals, is among them.

Though her face is digitally distorted so she can't be easily recognized, the photographers association's decision to release the picture has spurred controversy, pitting journalism's duty to disseminate the truth against the privacy rights of a violated woman.

The Poynter Institute, the Florida journalism school where the contest was judged, decided to leave the picture off its Web site, where all the other contest winners are displayed. Bunting said, "We are gratified that the Poynter Institute chose not to publish it. We thought it was inappropriate in March 2001 and I still think it's inappropriate for publication."

Aly Colon, a member of the Ethics Faculty at Poynter, opposed publishing the photo because of the "additional harm you may be causing this individual, seeing herself again in this experience, being forced to relive it." In Colon's view, the picture doesn't serve a compelling enough journalistic purpose to justify potentially hurting the woman in it. The newspaper's description of what happened to this young woman was fairly complete and graphic, he said, and therefore the community knew that this occurred. "If there had been no other description or if there had been a counter-argument that this didn't happen at all, that might offer an argument for publishing it because without it, people will not know the truth."

But the press photographer's group insists that the disturbing picture contributes to awareness of sexual violence, thus meriting their unusual decision to give a journalism award to an unpublished photo and to risk upsetting the woman in it, should she ever see it. After all, the brutal image does more than just capture an isolated event. In addition to the other Mardi Gras attacks, the rowdy, leering men pawing at a stripped woman recall similar assaults at Woodstock 1999 and at the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan.

To view the photo--warning, it is disturbing--please go to nppa.org.

Picture Symbolizes Frightening Trends

The picture "symbolizes some very frightening trends in our society," said Cheryl Hatch, a Seattle Associated Press photographer who was one of the contest's judges.

Hatch has worked with sexual abuse victims, and at first she was against publishing the picture. "If I was going to err, I was going to err on the side of the woman," she said. "I didn't want to do anything that would subject this woman to more degradation, exploitation, traumatization."

Yet like the other judges, she finally decided that the picture captured something words couldn't. The sight of an ordinary, clean-cut crowd descending into viciousness speaks "about the level of violence in our society and how it's a very thin line between civility and brutality, between calm and riot," she said.

Besides, she added, people tend to dismiss charges of sexual abuse at events like Mardi Gras that are known for public lasciviousness. "People would say, 'Oh, Mardi Gras, people go there to lift up their tops.'" Urban's image, she felt, made the horror of what happened explicit. After discussing the issue with a relative who had been sexually assaulted, she decided that publishing the picture with the woman's face hidden was a fair compromise.

Hatch said the judges' unanimous decision to publish the picture with the woman's face digitally obscured came after days of intense debate. One thing they discussed was what they saw as news organizations' double standard for pictures of foreigners and of Americans. Nick Ut's photo of a naked girl fleeing napalm in Vietnam has been widely reproduced, as have countless shots of starving, half-clothed Africans. According to Hatch, contest judge Horacio Villalobos, director of photography at Diario Popular in Buenos Aires, pointed out that American papers "run pictures all the time of people from other countries suffering and being abused and exploited. We publish pictures from abroad showing people's faces without regard to the issues debated in that room."

Yet according to Bunting, "It's a bogus comparison. It strikes me as an academic discussion that has no validity in the real world. We consider the story a picture will tell and the impact it will have on our audience. You can't look at a picture from 25 years ago and compare it to something that happened a year ago in Seattle."

As for the impact the photograph will have on the woman in it, no one knows. She has not come forward or been identified, nor any of her attackers charged. She might not have any idea of the controversy brewing over her image.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The New Republic Online, Utne Reader, Time Out New York, San Francisco Bay Guardian and other newspapers nationwide.
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