But there’s another chilling aspect of these images that, by contrast, takes a long moment to sink in: given the scope of the crisis at the border, how little photographic documentation exists. The image, which is now available in several slightly different iterations credited differently across the wire services, is a rare one from the ongoing crisis at the border. The American public has heretofore seen few images of this crisis, and the response to the recent photo has been swift and outraged.
But there are a few reasons why it would be difficult, and arguably unethical, to simply create or disseminate more footage.
For starters, “going rogue” to capture images could be a risky pursuit for a photographer; taking unauthorized photos while under the supervision of an official could have consequences, such as a loss of future access for that photographer or publication. Independently walking around taking pictures could be dangerous, too, given that the U.S.-Mexico border is an area where armed guards, smugglers, migrants, and border authorities are all present and on high alert.
There is also an ongoing controversy over the publishing of images of dead bodies that could complicate how photojournalists handle the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. In the United States, it is sometimes considered offensive to publish images of dead bodies, and there is a debate over whether it is appropriate to do even if the images are newsworthy. The publication of photos depicting American soldiers’ dead bodies, for example, has long been taboo; news-media photos of the coffins of American soldiers killed in combat were famously outlawed by the George H. W. Bush administration. The ban was lifted under the Obama administration, but “photographs of our war dead remain scarce,” according to a 2018 New York Times story. (Similarly, it would be widely considered in poor taste to publish photos of the bodies of victims of school-shooting massacres. )
The New York Times did, it’s worth noting, publish the picture of the migrant father and daughter, and editors explained their reasons for doing so in a follow-up story later. “At least a dozen editors discussed the image” after it surfaced to decide whether to run it, according to the follow-up story. Beth Flynn, the deputy photo editor for the Times, explained that ultimately, they ran the photo “because it bore witness to what is happening at the border between the United States and Mexico right now.”
The controversy over whether to publish photos of migrants who have died in the border crisis is further complicated by the seeming double standard that comes into play when the photographed bodies belong to non-Americans or nonwhite people. The same Times story went on to explain that if refraining from publishing photographs of Americans’ dead bodies is generally considered an act of respect, publishing photographs of non-Americans’ dead bodies could be understood as an act of disrespect. “When it’s common practice to publish photographs of war casualties from other countries but not to publish photographs of war casualties from the United States, then the very fact of visual access to the dead marks them as ‘other,’” the author Sarah Sentilles wrote.