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Sunday, April 17, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inside The Times

Photo Of Death Showed Grim Reality Of Choice Cobain Made On Life

When you die, you're dead.

If that sounds insensitive, possibly even cruel, it isn't meant to be. But it is essentially what motivated The Times to publish a picture showing the finality of Kurt Cobain's suicide.

The Times seldom publishes pictures with dead bodies, so it isn't surprising that many readers were deeply offended when they saw our front-page photo the day after the 27-year-old musician was found dead in his Madrona home. The picture, taken through a window, shows Cobain's right leg and right forearm and hand. A police officer is kneeling beside the body, taking notes. A cigar box and some personal effects are on the floor, next to the body.

Although no blood is visible, the picture invites the imagination to lean in, look around the corner and see the full horror of what Cobain had done to himself with a shotgun. Without being gory, the photo is gripping.

To many readers it is also tasteless, intrusive, insensitive and gratuitous tabloid journalism. (A sampling of the letters we received is on page B 11 today.)

Times photographer Tom Reese was working downtown when the photo editor called telling him a dead body had been reported at Cobain's house. Police and television news crews were there when he arrived.

Because nothing was happening at the front of the house, Reese walked up a public stairway leading to a park behind the home. Walking along the street behind the house, Reese could look through a slatted fence down at Cobain's house and an adjacent garage where Cobain's body was. From there he could see essentially what shows in the photo we published.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was awful to be there," he told me last week.

He was uncomfortable, in part, because of the stereotype of photographers who make their living shooting pictures of bodies. Reese says he felt far removed from what motivates him to be a newspaper photojournalist, which he describes like this: "Something important has happened. It's important to be there and tell people what happened. You show people what life is."

Reese has photographed death before, but this felt different. The image before him had exactly the mood of a tabloid. It wasn't an image The Times normally would run.

Nonetheless, if you're the person on the scene, you take the picture. The decision of whether to publish is made by others. So Reese, using a telephoto lens, recorded what he saw through the slots in the fence, through the open window. He also used a wide-angle lens, holding the camera above his head to take an overall shot of the back of Cobain's house.

Within minutes, police blocked the window and Reese was back in his car, headed for the office.

When the film was developed, editors knew immediately they faced a difficult decision. The photo of Cobain's body was as disturbing as it was compelling. It wasn't a decision anyone wanted to make on deadline, while the story was still developing. Instead, the final edition of that day's newspaper carried one of Reese's wide-angle shots of the house.

That photo set the scene, but it didn't tell the story. Reese's other photo, the one shot through the window did. The question was whether to use it the following day.

The discussion didn't take place immediately, but while the photo lay on a desk in the newsroom people were drawn to it. "There was a lot of standing and looking at the picture," commented one editor.

Quiet, thoughtful observations and concerns were voiced, as veteran journalists shared their own deeply mixed reactions. Everything that readers have expressed about the photo was felt in the newsroom that day.

It didn't shock; it touched. For me, personally, it generated feelings of utter sadness. It's a sadness I have felt before, for the loss of a sister who took her own life many years ago.

Others had their own frames of reference, but no one was unmoved by it. As Reese expressed later, "There is a huge amount of emotional content in a picture like that."

But emotion alone isn't enough for us to publish objectionable material. Our test is whether an important journalistic purpose will be served.

In some ways the official conversation about whether to run the photo might have been secondary to the testimonial that had taken place around the photo desk. The picture has an arresting quality that says, "This is the truth. It isn't pleasant, but this is what happened."

In this case the overriding conclusion was that this picture met that test by establishing an essential reality about Cobain's death. Our concern was that Cobain's suicide would be romanticized by some - suicide, the ultimate high.

As one editor said, the photo showed, "This wasn't cool, it was death and that's the result of suicide."

I suppose we'll get some letters this week saying that this column was one long rationalization for exploiting and sensationalizing Cobain's death - that people at The Times are no better than tabloid journalists.

So be it. I know better.

I know that Tom Reese is still resolving some of his own emotions about the picture. "Seeing that picture in the paper is nothing that makes me happy," he says. "It makes me uncomfortable, but I think it should be uncomfortable."

I know we were extremely cautious that the headline and caption with the photo would not seem sensational or take away from the reality of the picture itself. I know the photo ran in conjunction with several very sensitive stories about Cobain's life, his music and his last troubled days.

I take comfort in knowing The Times is possibly the most honored newspaper in the country for its use of photographs. We earned that recognition in moments like these.

Finally, I respect the fact that many people wouldn't have published the picture. But those people weren't faced with making the decision - we were.

As Reese said, something important happened and our job was to tell people what happened. This time showing what life is compelled us to show death, as well.

Inside The Times appears each Sunday. If you have a comment about news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or call 464-3310.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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