Last Saturday, radical Islamic militants entered a high-end mall in Nairobi, Kenya and opened fire on innocent shoppers, killing fifty-nine and leaving 175 wounded.

Shortly after the attack, The New York Times published a series of photographs taken by one of their photojournalists, Tyler Hicks. Carrying with him only a small camera, Hicks, having been nearby, rushed to the site of the shooting. He then spent two hours inside Westgate Mall, capturing the massacre as it unfolded.

Many of the twenty photographs in the series show graphic scenes of victims, traumatized and rushing away, or lying on the floor, bloodied and motionless.

To say that the photos are haunting is an understatement.

These photos are unembellished, but they are  also raw in another sense. They expose much more than the brutal consequences of the shooting. They reveal victims in their most vulnerable state: in the starkest moments of agony, or worse, dead.

In a piece for The New York Times, Stanley Gazemba, a Kenyan citizen, describes the day of the massacre as being “like a movie, except it involved real people.” He admitted that, like many of his fellow Kenyans, he felt the urge to witness the shooting for himself and head over to the mall. Hicks may have felt that same need. However, unlike some of his fellow citizens who showed up to donate blood, his photojournalist’s instincts led him to snap shots of the victims.

What Hicks and many others seem to forget is Gazemba’s distinction: that is, the horrific events they witnessed were happening to real people. Would he ever think of taking a picture of his loved ones, if they were the ones lying on the floor? The victims are not playing a role and their agony is not put on for the camera. It is genuine, and that is what makes them so vulnerable.

The duty of a photojournalist has been debated on an ethical level for years now. For example, people questioned why Kevin Carter—whose photo of a starving Sudanese girl bent over on the ground in front of a stalking vulture won him a Pulitzer Prize—did not help the child reach the United Nations feeding centre she was headed to, instead spending twenty minutes photographing her. Others argued that thanks to the photo, people became aware of the Sudanese crisis.

Is a photojournalist’s duty fulfilled when awareness is raised on a particular issue through his or her work? On the contrary, the need for such basic human sentiments as empathy and respect trumps the need for social awareness.

In reality, this is not even the problem surrounding the Nairobi shooting. This tragedy did not require photography to gain wider awareness. Too regularly, we read of shootings in the news. People do not need a photo of a dead man lying in his own blood to grasp the terrible outcome of a massacre.

Instead, the issue with Hicks’s photos is the gratuitous exploitation of a person’s life for shock value, just like it was with Richard Drew’s famous photo, “The Falling Man,” taken during the September 11 attacks in New York City. These photos undoubtedly affect viewers.

A photojournalist is, above all else, a human being. A respect for the dignity of those vulnerable victims, whether injured or fallen, should be prioritized over a need to record tragedy. As with the Nairobi shooting, such photojournalism desensitizes us not only to violence, but also to those human faces. We should consider that sometimes, words can suffice in getting a message across,  especially when the cost of an image is a person’s dignity.

– See more at: http://argosy.ca/article/dignity-trumps-telling-story#sthash.kt9HnduU.dpuf

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