Hard Photo Choices: Going with Your Gut

By Kellie Hultgren, production editor

Following up on The Invisible Word Count, last month’s post, here’s a look at some of the challenges we face in selecting photos for Twenty-First Century Books.

As reading level increases, so does the difficulty of the subject matter. TFCB publishes titles for grades six through twelve, and the images appropriate for a high-school senior might not be appropriate for a middle-schooler. At the upper reading levels, history and social studies books start to address tougher subjects, including violent and disturbing historical events. Science books also cover more intense topics, especially in topics like biology and medicine. So in photo selection, I have to ask myself, what would be most effective here? What’s respectful and not sensational? What will give the reader a deeper understanding without being terrifying?

Rule Number One for illustrating challenging books is actually quite straightforward: can I work with this picture without feeling nauseous? Regarding this rule, I have only two words, inspired by a book on meningitis: “pustulent brain.” Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

Beyond that basic rule, audience is my first consideration when faced with a difficult topic, like genocide in Rwanda. For Rwanda in Pictures, an entry in our Visual Geography Series, I had a broad audience (6th through 12th grades). I looked up our 2007 title Genocide, which was marketed for older readers (7th through 12th graders), and found that it had no images of violence in progress and only a few images of the grisly aftermath of genocide.

Photo Research provided a variety of photo options for Rwanda in Pictures, based on the photo wishlist. Because of the broad age range of the target audience, and because the book is an overview and isn’t able to give a lot of context for the image, I immediately discarded pictures of murder and of broken and decomposing bodies. I decided to use a haunting picture of a memorial in Rwanda—a room filled with clothing recovered from a single massacre site. Rwanda33 While there were several solemn ossuary memorials that didn’t seem too gruesome, I felt that the picture I chose best expressed the scope and violence of the situation without being macabre. It also did double duty by showing one of the ways in which Rwandans themselves are seeking healing and remembrance. The photo illustrates the subject without sensationalism, and it prepares readers who learn about this period in Rwanda’s history in the VGS book to encounter more disturbing images if they do further research.

I approached photo selections for Pol Pot’s Cambodia, an entry in our Dictatorships series, with an eye for an older audience (9th through 12th grades). As in Rwanda, journalists in Cambodia captured some very disturbing images of genocidal violence, first of the Khmer Rouge’s regime and, later, of the excavation of some of the Killing Fields. In my work on Rwanda in Pictures, I discovered that my personal line between “too grisly” and “realistic” falls at the point where a body was reduced to bones. (Does that hold true for anyone else?)

Taking my cue from my gut instinct and the use of intense photos in Genocide, I selected one grisly picture of Khmer Rouge victims left unburied to illustrate the ghastly state of Phnom Penh at the time of the 1979 Vietnamese PolPot136invasion. Then I followed it with a picture of mounds of bones at an excavation site at one of the Killing Fields to give an idea of the scope of the mass graves. I discussed the layout with several editors, and in each case we agreed that the photo content supported the text honestly but without overwhelming the intended reader.

Thus, as discussed in my previous post, photo selection eventually comes down to finding the right balance. Rule Number One aside, there aren’t any strict guidelines for photo selection. Instead, we rely on common sense, intuition, and a sense of what best serves the reader.