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Nicole Gross’ face captured the shock of a nation

In October 1862, the dynamic of photojournalism was forever changed.

Mathew Brady opened an exhibition in his New York gallery called “The Dead of Antietam.” It brought to the North for the first time the grim horror of the battlefield and extinguished romanticized notions of warfare for all who viewed it.

In the 150 years since, the force of photography has never lost its potency, its intimate ability to connect strangers to the human drama. Certain pictures are etched indelibly into our national conscience.

They are split-second images such as the young peasant girl – her clothes burned off – shrieking as she runs from a napalm attack in Vietnam. Such as the anguished teen bending over the body of a fallen Kent State student. Such as the Oklahoma City firefighter cradling a baby in his arms.

On Monday, a picture of Nicole Gross of Charlotte entered the pantheon of iconographic photography. Snapped at one-1,500th of a second, it showed a stunned but vibrant young woman in athletic gear knocked to the ground by a bomb at the Boston Marathon.

It flashed around the world at the speed of the Internet. It ran on front pages the next day in Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., New York and Charlotte.

“Her face, bloodied yet still beautiful, has quickly became a powerful symbol of the terrifying Boston Marathon terror attacks,” said the New York Daily News in a story reprinted as far away as the Uganda-based Web daily In2EastAfrica. “Her face conveyed the shock and horror shared around the globe.”

Moment it happened

John Tlumacki, a 30-year veteran with the Boston Globe whose photo of the Berlin Wall coming down was a Pulitzer finalist, was 75 feet from Gross when the bomb ignited.

“It was like the last boom in the grand finale of the Fourth of July fireworks that rattles on your stomach,” Tlumacki said.

In seconds, he was taking photographs in the blast area. When it was time to transmit his photos back to Globe, he discarded many of the images as too graphic.

Then he studied the picture of Gross and debated whether to send it. “There was this look on her face. Obviously she was in shock, but there was something about her in stark contrast to the bodies all around her,” he said.

“There’s a purpose in each iconic photo, even though it’s painful for us to look at. ... In this case, the world had to see.”

When contacted Friday by the Observer, Tlumacki had a question of his own about Gross.

“How is she doing?” he asked.

Image upset family

When the photo was flashed around the world, few knew the backstory of the image.

Gross, a fitness expert, had been waiting at the finish line to cheer her mother, whom she helped train for marathon runs. Gross’ husband, Michael, had been standing with her, as had her sister Erika Brannock.

Nicole Gross was hospitalized with a broken leg, a broken ankle, a severed Achilles tendon and other injuries. Brannock lost her left leg below the knee. Both face lengthy recoveries. Michael Gross suffered cuts and burns.

Carol Downing, the mother, was only blocks from the finish line when the blast went off. Her marathon was only just beginning: She’s spent the week shuttling between two daughters in two Boston hospitals.

Publication of the photo added to the family’s burden. After it was published, they released a statement to the press:

“While there is a public thirst for information, we ask for your patience and some privacy for a while as we work to recover. We also request that you refrain from using the graphic pictures of Nicole, Erika and Michael, taken at the scene of the bombing, as they are tremendously painful for the family. They are trying to focus on the future.”

Ethical questions arise

Roy Peter Clark has spent more than 25 years at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., studying ethical issues involving news photographs.

He says several tests should be applied to such material: Is it newsworthy? Does it address a situation with serious public significance? Is it too graphic? Was it taken in a public place?

“I don’t see any clear-cut ethical problems with running the photo,” he said.

Most news organizations in the United States, unlike other parts of the world, are loath to run photos of dead bodies, he said. News organizations routinely exercise restraint in such situations.

“I understand that the clothing was burned off some of the victims. If that had been the case and you were dealing with pictures of naked bodies, for example, it would be a violation of acceptable taste – they would cause additional suffering to the victim and to the people who know that victim in special ways.”

Message of image

Bert Fox, a former editor at National Geographic and the Observer’s director of photography, spotted the Boston Globe’s image of Gross, by then distributed to news syndicates, about two hours after the explosion.

In her face, he said, he saw an expression emblematic of the shock sweeping the nation.

“There was a look of pain and the drama of what the moment represented, what everyone was feeling,” he said. “It was the embodiment of the human condition.”

He put the photo aside for consideration for the next day’s newspaper.

Her identity wasn’t known until reporter Théoden Janes, an avid runner who has friends in common with Gross, was told by a friend that she was in the Boston Globe picture, which had begun circulating on news websites.

When editor Rick Thames and managing editor Cheryl Carpenter learned Gross was from Charlotte, they weighed how to play the photo. They decided to crop out a swath of bloody background and run it as a smaller photo on Page 1.

“We thought it through, looked at it closely, and decided that nothing brought this story’s pain home more,” Carpenter said.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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