Minutes after Elizabeth Taylor died this week, obituaries flooded the web, photos of the stunning star splashed across the obituary and front pages of the major news sites. Satirical newspaper The Onion released a one-photo story: Gorgeous 25-Year-Old Dead At 79.
It's a fair implicit point to make: Elizabeth Taylor, unlike some celebrities, remained very much in the public eye to her final days. There are plenty of recent images of her at benefits and ceremonies. It's a little startling, therefore, to be greeted by a fresh-faced twenty-something in greyscale at the top of her obituary. Because of the perennial debate about beauty and objectification in society and the media, it's also easy to look askance at a septuagenarian getting a radical makeover for her final curtain call.
But what's more truthful and respectful: to show the most recent photos of the deceased, or to show them as they will be remembered, perhaps in their prime? You can hate our culture's obsession with youth as much as you want, but there's a strong case to be made for depicting the dead in their glory days.
We decided to get some photo editors to weigh in. How do they choose photos for obituaries? "We have, in the past, used both younger portrayals and older portrayals as well as the most recent available image," mused Paula Nelson, assistant managing editor for photography at The Boston Globe. "There are arguments to be made for using any of those of course, but a classic star like Elizabeth Taylor is best shown in one of the highlights from her amazing career." She adds: "I don't think it's a matter of 'truth' because there is no deceit in using the photo of the person in younger years, in fact often times they are thought of by the general population just as they are portrayed in those younger images."
Steve Stroud, Deputy Director of Photography for the Los Angeles Times, thought similarly: "In most instances, we select an obit photo that best connects with that individual’s life. For an actor it might be as the character played in a prominent role. For a medical researcher it might be that person in a laboratory setting." He noted that "generally, it’s not the most recent photo, rather a photo reflective of their pinnacle time in life."
Then there's also Nelson's final point: "Very few of us age very well, right? So why not honor the memory of the person as well as the person themselves?"