(June 10) -- Photos like the deathbed image of Gary Coleman that Globe magazine printed on its front page are awful to look at, but do they also tell us a lot about that celebrity ... and our twisted culture?
Depends on who you ask -- and which celebrity is pictured.
Burt Kearns, the former managing editor of "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair," is the first to admit that deathbed and after-death photos like the ones showing John Lennon at the morgue, Elvis Presley at his funeral or paramedics trying to revive Michael Jackson are "distasteful" and "invasive."
Still, Kearns thinks that in Coleman's case, the photos may ultimately benefit the actor.
"As ugly as they are, they do serve a purpose," Kearns said. "It's easy to criticize the Globe -- as the hypocritical TMZ is doing -- but the photos do present a fuller picture of the ex-wife who sold them. Not only do the photos show Coleman in a heart-wrenching state, but she's in it! This paints a picture of what he was going through."
Kearns says that in the years after "Diff'rent Strokes" went off the air, Coleman became an "angry, cantankerous young man" who griped that people are bad and that he couldn't trust them.
"This is another example of the exploitation he complained about," Kearns said. "Gary Coleman died for our sins."
Although the Globe is being criticized for purchasing the photos, Kearns says it's telling that the headline reads "It Was Murder!"
"It just raises more attention to the fact that ex-wife Shannon Price pulled the plug on him -- something that she may have not had the right to do."
Still, Kearns is fascinated by the way Globe editors are trying to weasel their way out of controversy.
"There seems to be a dividing line between a 'deathbed photo' or an 'after-death photo,'" Kearns said. "The Globe is claiming it's only publishing the photos before his death."
It sounds terrible that Price would sell out Coleman's dignity for a few bucks, but Kearns says he's not the first celebrity treated in such a humiliating fashion by family members.
"When Elvis Presley died, the Enquirer was able to get the death photos by giving tiny cameras to 20 of his relatives," Kearns said. "The editors expected one or two photos at most -- and they got 20!"
Fact is, a deathbed photo is a true sign of a celebrity's iconic status -- notice the lack of celebrity death photos of Dennis Hopper or Rue McClanahan? Kearns sees another benefit: Proof of death.
"Jim Morrison and Tupac Shakur didn't have death photos and that's why some people feel they're still alive," Kearns said, not mentioning that the Inquirer's Elvis death photo didn't stop the "Elvis is alive" rumors.
Celebrity photographer Melissa Paradis says that, contrary to popular opinion, taking photos of dead celebrities isn't something that is a part of the normal paparazzi profession -- and doing it takes a lot of soul-searching.
"Paparazzi can take deathbed photos, but the agency that will publish them has to calculate the lawsuits vs. the money they earn before publishing them," she said. "I know some paparazzi that went in centers and took pictures of celebrities that were ill. They made a lot of money, but they had to calculate a lot of things before taking the shot.
"It's not like if you would go in and shoot and then get out. You have to study the place and make sure not [to] be seen taking the photos."
That happened to Paradis in another incident: taking pictures of Rihanna after she was assaulted by Chris Brown.
"I shot it through the windows of her hotel room. But the pictures didn't get published since it was trespassing," she said.
Paradis says the potential earnings from a deathbed photo depends on if the celebrity on the bed is internationally famous.
"It also depends if it's an agency distributing it or just a family member," Paradis said. "If it's an agency, it will sell worldwide. If it's a family member, they will only find one magazine to pay an amount for exclusivity, such as $50,000. In the end, the family member makes less money than they could have."
According to Paradis, when Anna Nicole Smith died, Splash News was the only agency that took pictures and videos of her the night before her death.
"They made $1 million the first day of her death," she said. "All the photos that were published after the first day was more money for them."
On the other hand, Paradis says when Michael Jackson died, the agency that had the video of the ambulance coming out of the gates only got $250,000, mainly because they prefer selling the video with their logo on it for less money ("which I think is totally stupid," she adds).
But while Price and the Globe are being vilified, they are only cashing in on demand.
Scott Allison, a social psychologist at the University of Richmond, studies human beliefs about deceased individuals -- especially people who've been declared heroes.
His research shows that people actually value dead individuals more than living individuals, a phenomenon he refers to as "the death positivity basis."
He also has investigated how people form judgments about dead people, and how these judgments differ from those formed about living people.
Allison says the Coleman photo is a "despicable act motivated by money," but adds that the people who buy the magazine or even look at the photo should also take some of the responsibility.
"Looking at this photo is like being an uninvited guest to a funeral," he said. "Are we at fault for violating the etiquette of privacy? Well, it's not a crime to behave like a human, but it's our duty to rise above this."
Allison says the interest in Coleman is indicative of how people react to "heroes" in general.
"People who take these pictures are profiting on their awareness of the public's ghoulish desire for shocking images of their heroes' final moments," he said. "People love to build up heroes, and they love to see them fall, too. The rise and fall has to end in death, and these deathbed photos combine our fascination with fallen heroes with our fascination with death."
Allison sees great poignancy in Kearns' phrase "Gary Coleman died for our sins," because a resurrection is key to a celebrity death.
"Death has a way of softening a person's image," he said. "The photo has a short-term shock value, but Coleman's achievements -- much like John Lennon's or Elvis Presley's or Michael Jackson's -- will be what people remember, not their deathbed photos."