2004 Madrid Train Bombings

May 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

While taking this International Media class we had to write a research paper on a topic that was somehow related to either Spain or Portugual. While doing some research I decided to write my paper on the 2004 Madrid train bombings that happened on March 11, 2004. I was narrow that topic down even further, and compare the Madrid train bombings to September 11, 2001, in terms of photographic coverage. There is quite a bit of information and shocking statistics regarding images that were posted on the front pages of newspapers, both in Spain and the United States. 

As always feel free to leave any comments :) 

t-minus 2 days till I leave!!


Without further adieu, here is my paper on the photographic coverage of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

(Please note that this was a research paper and there are citations within it)

The photographic coverage of the 2004 Madrid bombings compared to September 11, 2001

On March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on four Madrid commuter trains resulting in the death of 191 people and wounded more than 1,850 other people (Sciolino, E). Spanish ambassador, Javier Rupérez, declared, "This is our September Eleventh." It was extremely evident that the March 11 bombings were the worst in the history of Spain and Europe. Just three years earlier, September 11, 2001 was known for the worst terroristic attacks in the history of the United States (Mohamedou, M). One noted characteristic after September 11 was the way that photography was used by the press (Zelizer, B., & Allan, S.). It has been thought of, if March 11 effectively replicated the actions from September 11, the photographic coverage would reflect certain aspects of the Spanish press in their approach of covering terrorist acts.

Clément Chéroux devised a methodology for the study of the photographic coverage of September 11 which can also be related to March 11.  According to Chéroux’s study, the photographic coverage of September 11 was characterized by the unrelenting repetition of the images published, which led to uniformity in the photographic representation of the event, as well as by a phenomenon of ‘inter-iconicity’. Inter-iconicity is where certain photographs, such as ones from September 11 have become the most famous. They were not only repeated from newspaper to newspaper, but also in their framing and composition (Chéroux, C.). The former phenomenon in particular created a paradox of September 11. Despite that it was the most photographed event in the history of photojournalism, its photographic coverage was uniform and repetitive, consisting of just thirty photographs, which were based on just six images-types, or master images (Chéroux, C.).

A quick glance at the headlines from March 12, 2004, is enough to confirm that March 11 also produced a situation in which a small number of images were printed over and over again. The market for news photography is dominated today by a very small number of agencies, which can be counted on the fingers of one hand; Associated Press, Reuters and AFP-Getty Images. Because of these three agencies it creates a situation that leads to a drastic screening of the photographs being published. In reaction to this standardization, an alternative representation of September 11 was proposed in the form of a project called Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs; an exhibition that was then turned into a book that brought together, thousands of photographs taken that day by professional and amateur photographers. Two days after the March 11 bombings, two Spaniards conceived the idea for an identical project, Madrid in Memoriam: UnaIniciativa para el Recuerdo, which presented some two thousand photographs of March 11 in the form of a book, a website, and a traveling exhibition (Burgos, A. R., & Burgos, D. R.).

The first striking result to emerge was that all the images published on the front pages of Spanish newspapers were ultimately based on just six photographic subjects. More than a third (or 38 percent), depict the gaping hole caused by one of the explosions in the train that was passing Calle Téllez just outside the Atocha railway station. Next, 23.5 percent show the eye-catching images of the dead bodies in the wreckage, while 16.5 percentshow a row of corpses in black body bags near the trains prior to being transferred to the morgue. These three master images alone account for almost 80 percent of the photographs on the front pages of Spanish newspapers on March 12, 2004 (Pludowski, T.).

From this comparison between the photographic coverage of March 11 in Spain, Europe, and the United States, it emerges that while the images remain the same, the frequency of their use varies distinctly from one region to another. Moving further away from Spain, each of the leading master images are increasingly represented by a single photograph printed over and over. Only in Spain is there a positive connection between the sharing of a master image and the number of different photographs representing it, which confirms the influence of the wire services on the photographic representation of an event of international significance. At the local level, each newspaper publishes the images produced by its own photojournalists. Foreign newspapers draw from the more limited stock of images offered by the news agencies, which leads to a concentration on one or two photographs for each of the subjects.

Two of the three leading master images in Europe effectively correspond to just two photographs, which have become two of the most famous images of March 11. European newspapers published a photograph of the tracks beside a train with Madrid residents tending to the wounded. The photographic coverage of March 11 appears to have been more balanced in Europe than in Spain. The photographs showing the gaping hole in one of the railway carriages is one of the master images and it remains the most powerful and the most reproduced image throughout the world. Elevated to the status of a symbol of March 11, it was sometimes used in the following years to illustrate the articles on the commemorations of the bombings.

In the newspaper Libération, two days after the Madrid attacks, a reader wrote the following: “My message has nothing to do with voyeurism or a fascination with blood and gore. I’m simply writing to thank the European media for showing us with dignity what the United States refused to show us: the dead. It obviously isn’t pleasant to see blood, limbs, and strewn or mutilated bodies, but that’s the reality of terrorism and I think it’s important to see these images. I lived through September 11 at very close range, and if I hadn’t been thinking quickly just before the first tower collapsed, I might not be here today. In any case, having directly witnessed the deaths of thousands of people and having never seen a single body on television or in the newspapers – hardly even bloodstains – I can say that this bothered me a lot (Libération).”

It has been observed that the photographs of March 11 were most widely reprinted in Europe. It can be seen, the image of a wounded man covered with blood and an image of the train tracks where individuals who were rescued from the explosion, displays the graphic nature of dead bodies and human body parts in the background. This trend was even more pronounced in Spain, where the most frequently reproduced photograph was that of a dead woman’s body embedded in the wreckage of a railway carriage, with two firefighters in the foreground recovering other bodies. This photograph by Emilio Naranjo was distributed by three different agencies, the European Pressphoto Agency, the Associated Press, and Reuters. While it corresponds to 14 percent of the photographs published on the front pages of Spanish newspapers and nine percent of those published in Europe. It appeared on the front page of only one single American newspaper, El Nuevo Herald which, is a Miami newspaper published in Spanish for a Latin American readership (Płudowski, T.).

Similarly, Pablo Torres Guerrero’s photograph of the train tracks only made the front pages of five American newspapers, while the photograph of Sergio Gil covered in blood, only made the front pages of two papers. In the United States, in almost 18 percent of cases, Gil’s photograph was published on the front page in much smaller text next to a photograph of a different master image (Płudowski, T.). By giving precedence to the depiction of material destruction over that of human suffering (the fiery towers of September 11 or the ripped-open trains of March 11) and despite the fact that the images of the dead and the wounded were distributed by all of the major news agencies, the American press decided to censor the most violent photographs themselves (Chéroux, C.).

A photograph’s essential quality is often rooted in its ability to remind us of other images and to reactivate the representations and values associated with them. In the case of photojournalism, the success of an image is often because it evokes the memory of historical precedents, allowing us to immediately perceive the significance of the event. The most widely reproduced photographs of September 11 owed its success to its strong reference to images of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is especially the case with a photograph taken by Thomas Franklin. His photo depicts three firefighters raising an American flag above the ruins of the World Trade Center in a pose that recalls one of the most iconic images in American history and the history of photography; Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal. To describe this phenomenon of dual reference, in which a single image points not only to an indexical referent (a real situation) but also to an iconological one (another image that has acquired the status of an icon), Clément Chéroux turns to the notion of inter-iconicity, which may be defined by paraphrasing Gérard Genette as "a relationship of co-presence between two images or among several images, typically as the actual presence of one image within another (Genette, G.)".

If images of the dead were more visible in Spain than they were elsewhere, this is probably largely because of the attitude developed by the Spanish media while covering the bombings carried out by ETA since the 1960s. Some of the most disturbing front page photographs from March 12, 2004 resemble those published after the worst attacks by ETA. In the 1980’s, with the death toll from its attacks continuing to mount, journalists decided to stop hiding details of the atrocities committed by the terrorists in an effort to turn public opinion against them.
This relationship of inter-iconicity between the images of March 11 and those of the worst attacks by ETA is not enough by itself to explain the success enjoyed by the photograph that appeared on more Spanish newspapers’ front pages than any other. Emilio Naranjo’s photograph of the dead body of a young woman in the wreckage of a train with two firefighters in the foreground. Referring to this image, Lynn Staley, assistant managing editor for Newsweek, has said that for the magazine’s editors, it was “one of the most beautiful, haunting, and amazing images that we had seen (Irby, K.).”

People might find this an odd thing to say about the photograph of a dead woman’s body in the wreckage of a train. In fact, it reflects an aesthetic of suffering of the kind that is defined and analyzed by Luc Boltanski, and one of whose exponents in the history of painting is none other than one of the most celebrated Spanish masters, Francisco de Goya. This puts us on the trail of an iconic reference that may explain the special quality attributed to the photograph by Naranjo, the great works of Spanish painting on display at the Prado Museum just a few meters from Atocha railway station. Among the thousands of people who later came and left messages, candles, and various objects in memory of the victims, one left a clue that points in this direction, a little drawing inspired by one of Goya’s most famous paintings, Saturn Devouring f His Son, with the figure of the child replaced by a train (Irby, K.).

In an iconic photograph of the Madrid in Memoriam project it is showing a young girl with a gentle face and delicate features standing in the rain at a street demonstration following March 11, which compellingly evokes a representation of the Virgin Mary. These images exhibit an inter-iconicity very different from that of the images of September 11 in the United States. Its reference are artworks rather than photographs and are religious rather than historical, ultimately inspiring a comforting rather than an aggressive reaction to the event (Margry, P. J., &Carretero, C. S.).

March 11 was indeed a new September 11, certainly where photography was concerned. But it was more than that, by following the course established by the earlier event, it validated what had been revealed about the direction of photojournalism in an age of globalized media. Trends that March 11 further supported by making them even more visible. Following the bombings, José María Aznar did not hesitate to declare: “From now on, March 11, 2004, will have its place in the history of infamy (Aznar, J.).” In the American press nearly four percent of the newspapers featured it prominently on their front pages, compared to none in Spain and Europe. Following the lead of the American press, some Spanish newspapers repeated verbatim front page headlines that had already been seen in the United States in 2001: ‘Infamy’ in capital letters (La Voz de Galicia) or “The Day of Infamy” (El Mundo).

The infamy in Spain and Europe is not embodied by images of material destruction and smoke, but by those of human devastation and death. Dead bodies in the wreckage of the trains and the wounded covered in blood along the tracks have helped tell the story. These photographs remind us of the worst attacks by ETA and certain artistic and religious iconography. While the words and the headlines are the same, the images are different. Aside from a gaping hole, which was spectacular but of little informational value, there was inadequate overlap in what Americans and Europeans viewed on March 11. Both the Americans and Europeans were nonetheless able to depict the Madrid attacks as a new September 11, it is revealing of something fundamental. Even as Americans and Europeans all saw the same images of September 11, their understanding of the event differs. For the past it was an act of war committed against a nation, while for the latter it was a terrorist act visited upon the entire world.

Aznar, J. (2004, March 11). VIVA ESPANA! Retrieved from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1095782/posts
Boltanski, L. (1999). Distant suffering: Morality, media, and politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Burgos, A. R., & Burgos, D. R. (2005). Madrid in memoriam, una iniciativa para el recuerdo: Un proyecto de Adán R. Burgos y David R. Burgos. Madrid: Rodríguez Burgos.
Chéroux, C. (2010). Diplopia. The photographic image in the age of global media. (pp. 73-148). Torino: Einaudi.


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