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A Shocking Photo Causes Some to Wonder What Justifies Its Use

The decision to depict a Colombian mother who died shortly after the picture was taken sparked serious debate.


"If it bleeds, it leads" is the indictment leveled by critics of local television news programs and supermarket tabloids. Some readers accused The Times of similar sensationalism in placing on the May 17 front page a photograph that was intensely shocking. Others defend the photo as making a necessary and powerful statement about terrorism.

The photo showed a 53-year-old Colombian mother, a dairy farmer who was wearing simple pearl earrings and, around her neck, a strange-looking contraption. We learned in the caption and an accompanying story that the contraption was a bomb that was clamped around her neck by extortionists.

Next to the photo of the woman, Elvia Cortes, was a moving photo of her adult son, Carlos Pachon, resting his elbow on a coffin, a distant look in his eyes. He was mourning his mother, who was decapitated when the bomb exploded shortly after the first photo was taken. The explosion also fatally wounded the bomb expert trying to defuse it.

There is no mistaking the power of the Cortes photo. Or the emotional response of readers. One found the photo "one of the most hideously brutal and repugnantly shocking photographs I have ever seen in a newspaper." Others said running the photo of a woman "waiting to die" was "sick" and "more appropriate for the National Enquirer."

On the other side were readers for whom the horror of the photo forced them for the first time to focus on a story that has been in the news for several years, although rarely on Page 1.

Critics suggested the photo was the only reason for using this story so prominently, but Times' Executive Editor Leo Wolinsky, who made the decision to run the story and photo on the front page, disagreed. The story noted that Colombian President Andres Pastrana angrily broke off peace talks with Marxist guerrillas, with whom he has been negotiating for 18 months, after the woman's savage killing.

"They are using this incident to be a turning point in the conflict," Wolinsky said. "Pastrana reversed course entirely; this changed the political climate entirely." In fact, Wolinsky decided to use the photo in the May 17 paper--two days after it was made available by the Associated Press--after Pastrana suspended the peace talks.

The decision to use the photo was fully debated in the Page 1 news meeting. Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography, argued against it. He said later that he believed that to justify using the photo, which surely would shock and upset readers, it would have had to be one that depicted "a defining moment or [be] of some greater significance than the incident itself." He added: "It has to be a picture that we feel the reader needs to see to fully understand what is going on." He believed the Cortes photo didn't meet that criteria.

Stroud gave as examples of photos that did meet that threshold two famous and widely published images from the Vietnam War--the naked, screaming Vietnamese girl running down a road after being burned in a napalm attack, and the unarmed Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head by a Vietnamese army officer.

Others at The Times argued that the Cortes photo did define the Colombia story. On May 18, a slightly different shot of the victim before her death ran with a Times' editorial. "It was a horribly powerful picture, and it helped make our editorial point about the monstrous terrorism of the guerrillas in Colombia," said Editorial Page Editor Janet Clayton.

Whether editors agree or not about using the photo, they bristle at the charge by some readers that The Times uses such photos just to "sell papers." Stroud said Times' photo editors "get 1,200 to 1,500 photos to look at in one day, photos of bodies twisted and mangled and shot and hacked and rotted and all nature of human indignities, and we don't use them." To use them, he said, would simply revolt and ultimately desensitize readers. Then, when there was really a "defining picture," it would "be lost in a sea of other horrific pictures; it will lose meaning," Stroud said.

Obviously there's a great deal of human suffering that could flood the newspaper, and The Times does not have a practice of exploiting that. This Cortes photo was shocking precisely because its front-page use was exceptional and was used to make the point that terrorism in Colombia had reached a level that warranted heightened attention from Times' readers.


Narda Zacchino, an associate editor of The Times, is the readers' representative. The story and photo in question are available at:

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