Do Execution Photos Serve a Journalistic Purpose?

TIME announced the publication yesterday of “exclusive images taken by a photojournalist of Islamic militants publicly executing, by decapitation, a young Syrian…near Aleppo, on August 31, 2013.” TIME said in the announcement that, “because of the danger in reporting inside Syria,” it cannot confirm the identity or political affiliation of the victim, or the motivation of the killers.

The unnamed photographer gave a statement to Time in which he says, “I was feeling awful; several times I had been on the verge of throwing up. But I kept it under control because as a journalist I knew I had to document this, as I had the three previous beheadings I had photographed that day, in three other locations outside Aleppo.”

Read more at TIME Lighbox. A link to the images accompanied the announcement, but some of us at PDN couldn’t quite bring ourselves to look. Do such images, presented with so little context, do more harm than good?  Do they inform, and stir public outrage that ultimately discourages atrocity? Or does the photographer’s presence encourage the atrocity by giving the perpetrators a forum?

We’d like to hear from our readers about this. The images are posted at

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4 Responses to “Do Execution Photos Serve a Journalistic Purpose?”

  1. Ambrose Pierce Says:

    This account represents a serious ethical dilemma, and while I do believe it is important to bear witness to these kinds of atrocities, I often wonder if the condemned is nothing more than a sacrificial lamb used to broadcast a message their opposition. In this case, the photographer’s choice to record the event was borne out of both journalistic duty and a rationale that the execution would have taken place regardless. But how does he know this for sure? It’s my contention that he could not possibly know this for certain. Using similar rationale, it is just as conceivable that the execution took place not in spite of his presence, but because of it; with the perpetrators’ intention to further wage a campaign of fear and intimidation against their opposition. Therefore, it is just as possible that had the photographer not been there, this young man may have instead been beaten and/or taken prisoner, but his life spared.

  2. MIchael Says:

    The method illustrated may be crude, but while the US is near the top of the execution list, above Syria, Americans have no reason to either gloat at their superiority or be offended.

  3. Pat Says:

    The question pre-supposes that journalism has motivations other than simply showing us what happened. Propaganda has purposes.

  4. John Gallagher Says:

    It’s better to have more information rather than less. It has always been that way.