Four deaths on a Gaza Beach: The images unseen

Looking back: Were Lazar Simeonov’s photographs too gruesome to become iconic?

This photo and ones like it appeared in the media the day after an Israeli airstrike killed four boys playing on a Gaza beach. Some news organizations obscured the figure of the child.
Mohammed Talatene / Reuters

Freelance photographer Lazar Simeonov watched from his Gaza apartment window on the afternoon of July 16 as three Israeli shells struck a shack at the edge of a beach where seven young boys played. When the dust settled, four of them — all members of the Bakr extended family — lay dead, apparently victims of a mistake by the Israeli military on the ninth day of its Operation Protective Edge in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Simeonov and a number of other foreign journalists staying nearby ran to the beach. He was horrified by the scene he found there: Four children lay dead on the sand and nearby dock, their lifeless bodies torn apart by the blasts.

Assured that the three surviving children were receiving medical attention, Simeonov took out his cameras. The sight of a mutilated corpse would cause most to turn away, but the photographer did not flinch. “While taking photos in those circumstances,” he told Al Jazeera, “you don't really have time to think. You just do your job the best you can. That's why you're there — to show the world what's happening. The reality hits you hard afterwards.”

Still, taking the photo is one thing; publishing it is another. When the images of the dead Bakr children appeared in newsrooms around the world, editors faced a dilemma of finding a way to present the horror of what happened on that Gaza beach without alienating readers.

In their zeal to present the unvarnished truth, some newspapers have learned the hard way that there are limits to what readers will bear. In one famous example, the publication by British newspapers of photographs showing the suffering victims from the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a stadium crush, prompted readers to abandon and boycott some of those papers.

And even though the Bakr family's tragedy was nothing like Hillsborough, it still challenged photo editors to draw an appropriate line of decency. Simeonov sent his photos to many of his regular clients, but none published the more graphic images. “I kind of understand the logic behind it,” he said, “but I was still disappointed and angry because what happened was truly shocking — four kids killed in cold blood while playing on a beach — so it's not too much of a surprise that the photos are also shocking.”

And the story did not lack for written coverage, appearing on the front pages of many newspapers and leading on websites. Photographer Tyler Hicks, who was also among the several people to witness the aftermath of the attack, wrote a first-person account for The New York Times of what he saw.

On Al Jazeera America’s website, a photo gallery and a blog post were published, but none of the photos that showed the unvarnished truth of what happened that day were included.

This gallery contains one of them:

Telling the story of the deaths of the Bakr children was complicated by the sensitivities raised by charges and countercharges that images of dead children were being used as propaganda in the conflict. But by the time of the attack on the beach, many Gaza children over the previous nine days shared the fate of the Bakr boys — a deadly trend that would continue. By the time the 50-day Israeli operation was over, over 500 children were killed, according to a U.N. report. Images that some may have construed as propaganda were depictions of facts on the ground. In September, Israeli authorities opened a criminal investigation into what led to the strike on the beach, although no findings have been presented yet.

As was not the case in many of the other incidents, investigators of the Bakr boys' deaths have the benefit of strong visual evidence, including this video grab of some of the boys running moments before the third shell struck.  

Had Simeonov's images not been so gruesome, they might have gained wider distribution and the boys’ deaths would have been elevated to the kind of iconic symbol that has moved opinion in past wars. But like most individual acts of violence in the decades-long conflict between Israel and its neighbors, the deaths of the Bakr boys was soon subsumed by new horrors. And for many viewers, the resulting images were always going to be interpreted through a political lens.


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