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Sunday, March 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mardi Gras news photo that wasn't published wins prize

Seattle Times staff reporters

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A disturbing image from Seattle’s Mardi Gras 2001 — the drunken melee that left one man dead — shows a partially nude woman being groped by some two dozen men. She is topless and on her back; the men surround her, grinning and fondling her breasts and genital area.

The photo was never published in a newspaper.

But the National Press Photographer Association (NPPA) awarded the photo a first-place award and last week published it on its Web site with the woman’s face digitally altered.

Now in the public domain, the image has raised questions about the dueling obligations of photojournalism: to unflinchingly document society’s abhorrent behavior but at the same time honor the privacy of an apparent victim of sexual assault.

By not publishing the photo, was the public denied knowledge that Mardi Gras violence, much of which was cast in racial terms, was also sexual?

It also raises political questions closer to home: Were Seattle police aware of the incident at the time and, if so, did they investigate it with the same vigor with which they hunted for those involved in the fatal beating of Kristopher Kime?

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said Saturday police almost certainly had the photo and investigated aggressively. But the woman never came forward to report a crime and has never been identified.

So there was little police could do, he said.

“It gets difficult trying to charge someone with a specific crime in which you don’t have victims and witnesses,” Kerlikowske said.

Ethics debated

Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer Mike Urban took the picture. Its caption, as published by the NPPA, says: “A woman struggles to free herself as she is stripped of her clothes and sexually abused by out-of-control crowd as Mardi Gras celebrations turn violent in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district.”

The Poynter Institute, a media-training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week published a story about the photo on its Web site (www.poynter.org). In the story, Urban recalls the night.

“This woman in typical Mardi Gras fashion was asked to raise her top. When she refused, they (the men around her) began to reach at her and tear her clothes. It happened so fast that the sea of people cleared and the woman just disappeared. There was no time for me to do anything.”

The NPPA singled out the photo from more than 600 entries in the domestic-news category.

The selection sparked unprecedented debate, lasting several days, by the association’s contest committee as to whether the photo ought to be published online and then included in a Best of Journalism book.

As part of its debate, the committee interviewed Urban, along with the top editor of the Post-Intelligencer and a counselor who also was a victim of sexual abuse. In the end, the association agreed to run the photo but mask the woman’s face.

“The decision to publish this powerful and thought-provoking image is (made) on the basis to bring awareness to the event and to protect the identity of the female victim,” association president

Clyde Mueller wrote in an accompanying statement.

But Poynter, the journalism institute, did not include the photo on its Web site, which features all the other contest winners.

“The discussion was a matter of weighing the potential harm to the woman versus the potential good of publishing,” Poynter online/marketing director Bill Mitchell said in the institute’s report. He wrote that he felt “really pained” when he first saw the photograph. “Then I tried to put myself in the shoes of the woman herself or anyone who knows her, and that magnified the pain dramatically.”

P-I Executive Editor Ken Bunting said Friday that the newspaper fulfilled its journalistic obligation to fully inform the public of significant events by running a story that described the sexual violence at Mardi Gras, including the incident in the photograph. A P-I columnist also wrote about the photo at the time, saying the woman had been pushed onto a slab and appeared dazed as she was being assaulted. She later slid off the slab and escaped.

Bunting said it would have been “inappropriate” to publish the actual photo.

“I’m very comfortable with the decision,” he said. “You consider the impact it has on the people in it, and the impact it has on the people who see it.”

Also on video

In the days after Mardi Gras, Seattle police asked to see unpublished photos and news footage from local news outlets as a way to help identify criminal suspects, especially those responsible for the beating death of Kime, 20, of Kent.

Editors at The Seattle Times reviewed hundreds of pictures taken by Times photographers to cull those that showed serious assaults. Those images were published on the newspaper’s Web site photo gallery, available to the public and police.

Photo director Cole Porter said The Times had pictures of women baring their breasts, but none that captured an assault in progress.

The P-I turned its Mardi Gras photos, including Urban’s award-winning image, over to police.

Seattle Police Captain Brent Wingstrand, violent-crimes commander, said Friday that police saw the same incident on video. The video clearly shows a crime in progress, he said; the Urban still photo can’t be interpreted as clearly.

“When you watch the video, it’s clear this individual was not a willing participant, that she’s helpless at the mercy of all these people who are holding her up,” Wingstrand said.

But police weren’t able to identify the woman. Only one woman reported sexual assault connected to the Mardi Gras riots, Wingstrand said.

In the five months after Mardi Gras, more than two dozen people were arrested. Jerell Thomas, 18, of the Seattle area, was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Kime and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Most of the others were charged with rioting, assault and robbery.

One man was charged with forcibly fondling a woman.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office relied on videotape images as the primary evidence in many of the cases. But with so few victims identified, felony charges were difficult to sustain.

Wingstrand said victims of sexual crimes are even more reluctant to contact police.

“If we knew who the victim was, this would have been a high-priority case,” he said. “But we can’t take the process forward without her. You can see people’s hands. But you can’t tell whether someone might be trying to stop it. It’s really critical, in addition to having pictures and video, to have the victim.”

Sex assaults not in spotlight

Mardi Gras provoked public outrage about the Police Department’s failure to stop the violence. The debate that raged the next several months was charged with racial undertones, since many of the rioters caught on film were black.

Sexual assaults became little more than a footnote in that debate.

James Kelly, executive director of the Urban League, was one of the lead voices decrying the handling of Mardi Gras violence. Now Kelly says he should have made sexual violence a greater part of the debate.

He was among several African-American community leaders invited by the police to watch Mardi Gras footage. He said he doesn’t remember seeing anything like the image captured by the P-I’s Urban.

Rebecca Roe, a Seattle lawyer and former head of the King County prosecutor’s sexual-assault unit, saw the photo on the Internet and called it disgusting, offensive and powerful, the sort of photo that infuriates as well as prompts social action.

But while she said the public ought to know such assaults occur, she didn’t think the photo belonged in the newspaper.

“Looking at a picture like that is painful and offensive for women, particularly women who have ever been the victims of sexual violence,” Roe said. “It’s a revictimization, not just of the woman in the photo, but of other women.”

An online forum on Poynter’s Web site, popular among journalists, has carried a running discussion about the ethics of digitally altering the photo, whether the unpublished photo deserved the award and whether not publishing the photo is in itself offensive.

“We have all seen the photo from the Vietnam War where a small naked girl burned by napalm runs screaming toward the camera,” wrote one contributor. He also mentioned photographs from Sept. 11 showing people plunging to their deaths from the World Trade Center; the photos were published in several newspapers around the country.

Porter, the Times photo director, said the real reward in photojournalism is the ability to effect social change. News organizations must balance their duty to inform the public with respect for a victim’s privacy, he said.

While Porter didn’t question the P-I’s decision not to publish the photo, he said people should be able to see it.

“It will bring another level of attention to what Mardi Gras meant,” he said. The Seattle Times is not including a direct Web link to the photo because of its graphic nature, because the woman’s identity is not known and because it potentially would be showing sexual abuse, which is against the newspaper’s general policy.

“If the public chooses to, it can find the photo,” said Jacqui Banaszynski, assistant managing editor for the Sunday paper. “We’re not going to make an overt gesture to put it out there.”

In his interview on www.poynter.org, Urban said he hopes publication of the photo online will do some good.

“There’s this sense that sometimes photographers should be more than just witnesses,” he said. “And given the circumstances (at the time) I was obviously unable to do something. But I think what I’m doing (now) is raising consciousness.”

Florangela Davila can be reached at 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com.

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