BY ALAN RUSBRIDGER
AST SATURDAY WAS a glo
riously sunny day spent
n the garden. I got round to reading the papers late. I was idly reading through The Guardian when I was suddenlybrought up short by a remarkable photograph the most extraordinary picture I think I have ever seen in a newspaper. Lest this sounds like an advertisement for the paper which employs me, let me say straightaway that for one reason or another, I spent very little time in The Guardian's offices last week. I know nothing about the background to the photograph, and the first I knew of it was when I turned to the obituary page at the weekend.
The picture is of a woman called Sasha Young who died last week. The caption simply says that she is "at her death". She may be within minutes of death or she may already be dead. It is not quite clear. Pictures of dying people are, unhappily, not unusual in newspapers or on television. What makes this photograph so extraordinary is its context. Sasha Young is clearly at home, presumably in her own bed. She is elegantly dressed; her face is made-up. There are flowers in the room, which is well lit. She is staring straight up with crystal eyes. There is the hint of a smile on her lips. At her left is the prostrate figure of her husband, Lord Young of Darlington, his face and hand clinging to her hand. At her right is the upright figure of her daughter, Sophie. Her daughter is half bent over the mother, one hand out resting on her shoulder.
The shock lies in the intimacy. The caption simply tells us that the photograph was taken by a family friend. Well it is not every day that a family friend is on hand with camera at the point of death. It is even rarer for the photograph to be offered to a national newspaper to accompany an obituary.
A friend who was also much struck by the picture was also disturbed by it. Was there not something posed about the photograph, he demanded? If not posed, then, at the very least, something a touch narcissistic? And what were the motives in allowing it to be published? Come to that, what were The Guardian's motives in publishing it?
But people are for ever taking pictures of babies emerging from between their wives' legs, I reconstructed. It was not uncommon for such pictures of something every bit as intimate to turn up in newspapers. "But that is an occasion for joy," he said. "Death isn't."
"Surely," I argued, "that is the point of the picture. It is an occasion for joy." He harrumphed: "They'll be videoing the damn thing next." And he poured himself another glass of wine. So here I am, 24 hours later, still glaring at this haunting picture, The only thing that disturbs me about it is the first objection raised by my friend: whether the picture is natural or contrived. This is doubtless an unworthy question, but we know enough about some of the great photojournaliitic icons of the past few decades the Douanier kiss, the triumphant American troops at Iwo Jima to retain sceptical instincts in these matters.
Two things convince me that it is something genuine. One is a slight acquaintance with Michael Young, one of the authors of Labour's 1945 manifesto and one of the greater men of the second half of the 20th century. The other is the sheer improbability of such a group severally deciding to pose in such circumstances. If, then, it is an authentic representation of a microsecond before or
after Sasha Young's death, I find myself unable to share any of my friend's reservations. To me, it is a picture of joy, just as much as the photograph I have at home of my elder daughter in her mother's arms seconds after she was born.
Sasha Young looks peaceful, composed, happy and ready. She is at home, surrounded by friends and family. It is difficult to think of a more enticing image of death. Is it narcissistic? Possibly. Does that matter very much? Probably not. Is it strange that the picture should be offered to a national newspaper? It might seem so. But anyone who has ever had anything to do with Michael Young will know that his is a passionate, restless and original mind with an overwhelming commitment to education. I am fairly sure that his motive in releasing the picture would have been
at least partly an educative one, I'm sure he would have recognised the potency of an image that said that death can be beautiful, can be joyous, can be calm.
Should The Guardian have used the photograph? I am sure there will be those who, like my friend, found it disturbing. The paper will, I am certain, have letters from people who feel it was not something they wished to see or wished their children to see. I am equally certain the paper was right to use it. It is an image that will make some people rethink their lives, or possibly their deaths. It is sad that our attitudes to death are so complicated that we should find such a peaceful image shocking or disturbing.
In its small way this picture may have done something to change that. t Alan Rusbridger is Deputy Editor of The Guardian.