Rights to publish – or not

Every time the family and friends of the victims of the Carterton hot air balloon disaster see images of the tragedy, the pangs of loss must reopen fresh wounds. Four years is not much time to recover from such an acutely awful event.

It’s not surprising then, that they were anxious that members of the public should be shown the images of the crash taken by photographer Geoff Walker. They wanted others to share their shock, anger and desire that an accident like this should never be repeated.

Walker was initially successful in having the release of four images to TVNZ blocked, but it was only a temporary victory and the photos have since been widely published. Some family members supported the release so that the public could see the consequences of things going wrong, and be more careful when deciding whether to go ballooning themselves.

Unfortunately the release of the photos had the opposite effect. They were (thankfully) not graphic. None of the victims was visible but the disastrous fire and plunge of the balloon to the ground were plain to see, albeit from a distance.

Yet anyone who had read accounts of the disaster already had much worse images in their heads long before the actual photos were published. The human imagination is all too capable of filling in the gaps when no pictures exist, and the disaster in my mind’s eye was always more graphic and “real” than the published photos. Rather than heightening our sense of shock and outrage, the publication – and the time that had elapsed – allowed us to process and compartmentalise the disaster, filing it away alongside the countless other tragedies that play out routinely in our papers and on our screens.

I understand the families’ motivation, but they were wrong in this case.

My sympathy for them is undiminished, but I also feel sympathy for the photographer Geoff Walker. He cited copyright reasons for fighting publication, but I suspect he also felt it was just wrong on ethical grounds. Being a professional photographer is not an easy living these days, and the copyright of many is routinely violated.

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