Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Public Editor: A picture can be worth so much more than a mere one thousand words

To say every picture is worth a thousand words sorely underestimates the impact of photojournalism. Think the Vietnam war and what comes to mind? The photo of a girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from a napalm airstrike. The photo was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut in 1972.

Think of the protest at Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. Here another AP photographer Jeff Widener was on a sixth-floor balcony of a Beijing Hotel. His photo of a man carrying shopping bags standing bravely in front of a row of tanks showed the most remarkable act of courage and resistance.

One poignant example a reader noted this month was the front page photo by Getty Images photographer David Becker of a man cradling a woman in the midst of the Las Vegas shooting. Mr. Becker, who was covering the music festival there, risked his own life to document the humanity and the horror.

Story continues below advertisement

Nothing grabs your emotions and holds on so tight and so long as a single still photo.

Last weekend, an equally impactful photo on the front page and another on the Focus cover showed Byron Ruttan, a man raped, at the age of 12, by a court-appointed mentor. Mr. Ruttan's quest for justice, as an adult, was delayed further when his mentor, though convicted, was allowed to walk free after higher courts cited an "unreasonable delay" in the trial. Mr. Ruttan's courageous face bears the scars of such a terrible life, but his dignity and strength shine through. It's worth noting that there was a publication ban on the identity of Mr. Ruttan as there is for victims of sexual assault. They can be overturned with a subject's consent and Mr. Ruttan agreed to seek an end to the ban. The Globe's Fred Lum took two and a half hours to photograph him and his son. It takes time to gain the trust of subjects and to feel their story.

A reader from Edmonton wrote in praise of the article by Sean Fine and Mr. Lum's photos. "The article contains one of the most evocative and descriptive phrases I have ever read: 'His face reads like a victim-impact statement.' Along with the amazing photographs that illustrated the article, it captured the impact of the crimes committed against Mr. Ruttan in one short, powerful sentence."

These are heroic and high impact photos, but others just irritate people. Initially after Donald Trump's election, readers asked that the Globe not publish so many. Since then, there have been fewer. One reader called it despicable when a photo of O.J. appeared in the paper. I disagree and believe that it was news and important to see what he looked like on the verge of his release from prison.

A reader from Kingston quite rightly complained about a photo with a Moment in Time published this summer which showed three Indigenous men described only as "local Indigenous leaders." No names, the reader said. "We are not told where 'local' is, let alone to which First Nation they belong. Surely The Globe and Mail… can do better."

The photograph, which accompanied a piece about the St. Lawrence Seaway, was taken in 1954 and not published at the time by The Globe . The information provided in the caption included the names of the premier and the Hydro chair but not the Indigenous men. This was not acceptable then and certainly not now.

That said, photojournalism has come a long way from showing many photos of (mostly male) politicians and business leaders. And not much has the emotional impact on readers that a good photo does.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨