Opinion | What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Questioning the role and responsibility of war photography
By | Apr 29, 2024
Featured, Israel-Hamas War, Opinion

The award-winning photograph is sharp, well-focused, and gruesome. The body of Shani Louk, the 22-year-old German-Israeli tattoo artist who was kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival on October 7 and murdered, lies face down in the bed of a pickup truck. She is partly naked, her arms and legs splayed and contorted. Men sit on either side of her and another stands on the driver’s side running board, hanging onto the window frame. One of the seated men holds a grenade launcher, his mouth open in a cheer and his leg draped over Louk’s body. Another man stands behind her in the truck bed and looks straight at the camera, pointing triumphantly at her body as the truck speeds toward Gaza. 

The image is part of a group of images taken by photographers from the Associated Press that recently took first prize in the prestigious Pictures of the Year competition (POY) run by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. 

I do not believe that we can promote anti-war sentiments, encourage peace or struggle against evil through the secondary victimization of the dead that denies their individuality, agency and humanity.

It is not known if Louk was already dead at the moment the photo was taken or died later. Her body was never recovered, but a skull fragment that matched her DNA was found at the site of the music festival, suggesting that she may have been mortally wounded before her body was taken to Gaza. Nor do we know if she was raped. However, given what we now know about the events of October 7, as detailed in an extensive report by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel as well as in the UN report, it’s reasonable to suspect she was. Rape of civilians as an act of war is a war crime. And international law prohibits the taking of hostages during an armed conflict.

The POY award was given in the category of Team Picture Story for photos of the Israel-Hamas war.  But what story is this picture telling? It is a picture of military victors, but the vanquished is a young civilian woman who was brutally abused, kidnapped, and murdered. It is a picture of war crimes, yet not a picture of war, nor was it snapped in the heat of battle.  

To me as a woman, the award given to this picture is an offensive affront to Shani Louks’s memory and dignity. In fact, this winning picture was initially published with Louk’s body and part of her face visible to the viewers. Subsequently, after public and social-media protest, her body and the visible parts of her face were blurred by many media outlets. In a way, that only serves to make the picture even more horrific, suggesting that it really doesn’t matter who Shani Louk was, how she lived, what she dreamed of, whom she loved, or even what she looked like. All that matters is that she was a Jewish Israeli woman.

Furthermore, celebration of this picture is a horrendous affront to me as an Israeli and a Jew. The October 7 atrocities included genocidal rape, a strategy that is intended to terrorize, degrade and humiliate an entire people. The Hamas massacre was intended to demoralize us all, to make all Israelis, and perhaps all Jews, feel that we are unprotected, existentially and physically vulnerable. In this picture, the men who are cheering her conquest are celebrating their victory over us all. The picture and the award are thus a stabbing reminder of how threatened I have felt in my Jewish-Israeli female body since October 7. 


I know there are other ways to view this picture and this prize. Louk’s father, Nissim Louk, told YNet News, “It’s good that the photo won the prize. This is one of the most important photos in the past 50 years. These are some of the photos that shape human memory—the Jew raising his hands, the paratroopers at the Western Wall—photos that symbolize an era.”

And yes, it is the role of photojournalism to tell powerful and necessary tales. It is the responsibility of journalists and photojournalists to show the hideous face of war, forcing us all to look at reality and maybe, just maybe, push us a bit further toward peace. In fact, the Reynold’s Institute at the University of Missouri defended their choice for the award, stating, “While we understand the reactions to the pictures, we also believe that photojournalism plays an important role in bringing attention to the harsh realities of war.”

As a journalist, I take that role very seriously. I have dedicated my professional life to reporting, often about realities that many of us, myself included, would rather ignore. And yes, publication of some pictures, such as the burning girl fleeing napalm in the Vietnam War, may have helped to change the course of that war. And yes, pictures of the terrorization and murder of Jewish women during the Holocaust serve as evidence of the evil into which humankind can descend.

But in later years, these pictures have raised ethical questions, including whether we, the living, have the right to publish pictures that show human beings at the very moment when they were stripped of their dignity. I do not believe that we can promote anti-war sentiments, encourage peace or struggle against evil through the secondary victimization of the dead that denies their individuality, agency and humanity.

As a feminist and a Jew, I have found at least some of my answers to these dilemmas in two different, yet ultimately mutually reaffirming codes. Both feminists and Jewish tradition have codes and customs that, if the awards committee had considered them, might have prevented the Reynolds Institute from awarding the picture in the first place.

The Murad Code is a voluntary code of conduct that details existing minimum standards for the safe, effective and ethical gathering and use of victim or survivor information in relation to systematic and conflict-related sexual violence. Named for 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad, a member of the Yazidi religion who survived unspeakable rape and torture at the hands of ISIS, the code is meant as a guide for everyone who documents, investigates, reports on or researches the use of information about victims and survivors of sexual violence—and should apply to journalists, photojournalists and awards committees, too.

The Murad Code reflects universal, core standards, including the right to dignity, privacy, justice and truth, must be upheld. Although it applies primarily to surviving victims, I believe it can and must be extrapolated to the dead as well and that awarding the prize to this picture denies Louk, whether or not she was already dead at the moment that the camera shutter was snapped, all of these rights.

Judaism, too, teaches us how we must treat the dead. Following an ancient Jewish custom, after the traditional cleansing of the body of a person who has passed away and after their burial, attendants humbly ask for forgiveness for anything they might have unintentionally done that didn’t show the deceased enough respect. “Everything we did…was for the sake of your honor,” they say. This is a reflection of the fact that we must act with humility toward the dead.  But to me, this picture is an epitome of attempts at superiority over an individual woman, over a people, over humanity. And it offers a prize to the man who took the picture that enshrined that conquest.

A Change.org petition is circulating calling on Nikon, the main sponsor of the award, to denounce the photograph. At the time of writing this column, the petition had garnered 162,178 signatures.

I believe the award can and should be rescinded, but I know the picture will be on the internet forever. We cannot restore dignity to Shani Louk’s final moments, nor can we ask for her forgiveness. I can only hope that when we see this picture, we will not see the sneering men or the helpless, degraded victim; I hope we will see it as a command to oppose all gender-based violence, all war crimes, and any attempt to deny the basic humanity of anyone.

One thought on “Opinion | What’s Wrong with This Picture?

  1. Michael N. Alexander says:

    Given that the horror actually happened, I think the photo deserved publication. Go suppress it would be to whitewash Hamas’s despicable crimes.

    Jews too often try to make nice to evil persons and organizations.

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