Michael Ignatieff – But Should You Print It ?

Notes on Michael Ignatieff “But Should You Print It?”

Having read this article I had an idea that this seemed familiar. In fact quite a lot of it is identical to a piece of the same name in Harold Evans’ book “Pictures on a Page”. Since Evans’ book was published in 1978, the references to the gulf war and George H.W. Bush suggest Ignatieff’s article is much more recent, but several of Ignatieff’s paragraphs do seem to have been lifted wholesale. I can’t find anything to suggest Ignatieff is guilty of plagiarism but it does seem a bit suspicious.  

Much of Ignatieff’s article concerns the ethical questions surrounding publishing images of violent death, particularly resulting from war. In discussing Kenneth Jarecke’s photograph of the body of an incinerated Iraqi soldier, he makes the point that publishing this image is justified because it does not break implicit rules of privacy. We see that this man has dies a horrible death but because we cannot identify him directly – we cannot make out how he looked in life – it serves as a universal warning against war in general. I’m not sure I buy this reasoning; there may be grounds not to show the image because it is too horrific (depending on one’s own sensibilities) but privacy seems rather spurious here. Of course the surrounding context must be present whenever the image is shown, otherwise we would not know he was Iraqi. This identification affects my reaction; if after seeing this it then became clear that the soldier was in fact British, it would make it much more ‘real’. As much as I want to remain clear that war is awful, there is still part of me that has to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Ignatieff says he disagrees with publication of bodies caught in a streetcar fire on the grounds that there was no need, that it did not explain anything. I think the same argument applies to the photograph of the Iraqi soldier. The people in the streetcar were innocent victims, but the Iraqi soldier was likely a conscript with little choice but to take part. Does that make him guilty so that we are given license to show him as an anonymous warning? Both images dehumanise the subjects, both show a horrific image of intense suffering. I am not convinced by his arguments for and against publication of either photograph.

Ignatieff says he believed in the (presumably first) Gulf war, that it was necessary, and that as a result he has to face the consequences that war brings. I think this is absolutely true but we should force ourselves to face up to the consequences whoever the victim was – friend or foe. As I said above, I know I – perhaps unconsciously – make a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to war. It is because I am aware of this that I think it necessary that we face up to images that show not just the suffering of foreigners, but those of our own side as well. There are still arguments to be made over privacy and prurience but that is always going to depend on the individual image


Ignatieff, M. (s.d.) ‘But Should You Print It?’ At: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/shouldyouprint.pdf

Evans, H. (1978) Pictures on a page. Photo-journalism, graphics and Picture Editing. (s.l.): William Heinemann Ltd.  

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