Bad enough you are a Prince whose meandering Mother gets killed in a Parisian car crash in the company of a man from another country and religion. But now, ten years later, to have the wreck a subject of a televised documentary featuring graphic footage of Princess Diana in her dying moments, well, Princes William and Charles are said to be furious at the prospect.
True, Channel 4 had offered the Princes a private showing of the documentary before airing, and a Royal spokesperson says, “This is the last thing they would want…they’d rather no one mentioned her death.” (Not likely, since the tenth anniversary of her demise is being observed around the world.) Channel 4 says some of the images would be obscured and nothing likely to distress relatives will be shown. But the presence of the dying scene has been the chief pre-broadcast talking point.
Which raises the point: how much of thanatopsis moments should be shown? Where is the limit? Where does news veer into unfair sensationalism? Has the rise of the Internet and occasional on-camera beheadings performed by fanatics “pushed the envelope,” as journalism would say? We mentioned “unfair.” Can you be unfair to a corpse in work?
Yes. Photographers know this. Sensate ones are well aware of the unfairness of their position in the presence of violent death and dismemberment. In September of 1959 a Braniff Electra en route from Houston to Dallas came apart near the Texas town of Buffalo, the first of several models of its ilk to come apart due to whirling motion in its outer engine nacelles. Twenty-eight passengers and six crew died in the Buffalo disaster. My station sent a film crew there and one returned with footage that would turn the stomach of a civilized person. Many of the victims had been hurled from the wreckage at altitude and had fallen to earth. Many fell into a grove of trees and the descent through the branches dismembered them, rendering long strings of human parts. Our cameraman had for some reason filmed many of these dismembered elongated corpses. He had figured, of course, that none of this footage would be used in the final air product. But I questioned him on his having done it at all.
It was more than a matter of taste. It was also a question of fairness. Was it fair to take this advantage of those poor people, deceased though they were? This was not war, in which the intended product is corpses. This was an accident, and there’d be another like it involving a Northwest Airlines Electra over Tell City, Indiana, in six months.
I didn’t think at the time and don’t now, after years of reflection, that the filmer knew what I meant in dressing him down. But I would like to think that many, if not most, professional cameramen grasp my meaning: there is something unfair in using a privileged position to take advantage of death, even with, or more especially with, the knowledge that what is being captured can never be used.
This touches only slightly the subject of a dead or dying Princess and her sons, but it is tangent. I don’t need to see the Paris accident footage. Been there before.
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