Storm over "penis" in Va. Tech shooting photo

Readers outraged by supposed nudity in image of wounded student.

Published April 27, 2007 7:04PM (EDT)

To prove that the naked male body can be just as controversial as the naked female body, I enter into evidence the debate spawned by a supposedly inappropriate photo from the Virginia Tech massacre. The photo shows student Kevin Sterne -- his legs covered in blood -- being carried by rescue personnel after the shootings. The disturbing shot was published in several newspapers, but at least the New York Post and People digitally retouched the photo to conceal what some argue is the student's penis, according to Photo District News Online. But others argue -- and I'd have to agree -- that the object in question isn't his penis, but rather the tourniquet that likely saved his life. (After a bullet pierced his hip and severed an artery in his leg, the former Eagle Scout tied a bandage around his leg to stem the bleeding.)

New York Post editor-in-chief Col Allan said alterations to the photograph were made "to protect the wounded student's dignity but in no way change the news impact of the picture." People's director of photography, Chris Dougherty, simply added: "Our sentiments closely resemble those stated in the article by the Post's editor, Col Allan." But, oddly enough, the retouched photos I've seen (included in the PDN slide show) don't entirely erase the object in question -- they simply manipulate it so that it looks more bandage-like. If photo editors thought that it wasn't actually a bandage and were really so concerned about the student's dignity, wouldn't they entirely cut the object from the photo? (Or, more appropriately, choose against running it altogether?) The retouching seems more legitimately an attempt to avoid offending any readers.

Perhaps for good reason. After the Hartford Courant ran the untouched photo on the front page, readers got to ranting. Karen Hunter, the paper's reader representative, published some of the responses on her blog and, my God, is it a must-read-to-believe. One reader wrote, "Today's front-page photo under 'Delay Proves Tragic,' April 17, on Tuesday, has really rocked me to the core. I don't believe this photo should have been published. I think it's an invasion of the young man's privacy who is being assisted in the tragedy down in Virginia." But this reader isn't complaining that the photo is an invasion of the student's privacy because it depicts a traumatic, life-or-death moment. The reader continues: "I don't know how it got by the publishers that this young man's privacy seems to have been invaded, at least that's what I'm seeing in this photo or at least interpreting it that way -- without being too descriptive. I hope other people speak out about this." What's amazing is that the very private-yet-public trauma experienced by the student goes unmentioned for the most part by the outraged Courant readers.

Maybe it's entirely unrealistic to expect people to have as visceral of a response (c'mon, the reader said she was "rocked to the core") to the violence in the photo as the alleged nudity. But, in the very least, it's remarkable that as much as we're desensitized to both violence and sex in our culture, naked genitalia or imagined naked genitalia -- of either sex -- can still cause a stir in certain contexts.

As for Sterne's take on the whole thing? He reportedly has the photo hanging on his bedroom wall.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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