Kevin Carter’s most famous photograph shows a malnourished toddler who had buckled in the dirt under the menacing gaze of a vulture in southern Sudan as she tried to reach a feeding centre.
The image appeared on page 3 of The New York Times on March 26, 1993, and then in other publications around the world as what Bill Keller has called “a metaphor for Africa's despair,” drawing global attention and aid to a famine-stricken region.
Carter reportedly waited 20 minutes before taking the iconic photograph, in hopes that the creature, seemingly poised to devour the child, would spread its wings. It did not. Once he had captured the image, the photographer chased the bird away, and the toddler continued her journey.
After the photo was published, The New York Times received hundreds of phone calls and letters from enraged readers. What had become of the little girl, they wanted to know, and why, instead of immortalizing her in an image, had the man not carried her the remaining distance to the feeding centre? Carter received the Pulitzer Prize for that photograph the following year. Two months later, he killed himself at the age of 33.
Similar questions arose earlier this month, when an off-duty television journalist was reported to have filmed while more than a dozen men sexually assaulted a teenage girl outside a bar in a busy street in northeast India. The journalist allegedly called for assistance - from a cameraman, who helped him film the attack.
For approximately three quarters of an hour, no one intervened. The victim later asked why the journalists had not defended her, the Guardian reported. “They were only taking pictures,” she is quoted as saying in an interview with Indian media. “Why could they not help me?”
Both scenes depict one of the fundamental ethical conflicts facing journalists: when should one’s professional duty to witness, document and lay bare be superseded by one’s human compulsion to act? By observing – for a livelihood – the suffering of those more vulnerable, can such journalists not be compared to the watchful vulture in Carter’s photo?
Last year, some months after a landmine exploded under photographer Joao Silva in Afghanistan causing him to lose both of his legs, and some weeks after three of his colleagues had been kidnapped and beaten in Libya, The New York Times' then-Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote a column for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine titled The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers. In the piece, Keller, who had written Kevin Carter’s obituary nearly two decades earlier, articulated the moral implications of a photojournalist’s work, and the price that many pay for it.
“Any photographer who has snapped memorable images has had the experience of being damned for it, and it is something the most thoughtful of them take to heart,” Keller wrote.
“For most of the combat photographers I’ve known, the idea that they are unfeeling is exactly wrong. You can see the almost-unbearable sympathy in the best of their work, and it is an adhesive that binds them to one another. What people mistake for emotional distance, I think, is an intensity of experience that an outsider cannot fully penetrate.”
From the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. where he was “getting accustomed to his new robo-legs and fighting off waves of infection,” Silva concurred.
“People just don’t get it,” he said to Keller. “You have to be there, and you have to live it.”
Silva, who had been nearby when Carter photographed the little girl in Sudan in 1993, also explained that the toddler who elicited such a strong response from readers of The Times had in fact been within the “perimeter” of the feeding centre.
Journalists’ decisions about how and when to intervene are, of course, personal and case-specific. This weekend, in response to the controversial footage of the sexual assault in India, the Guardian published a slideshow featuring a series of emotionally powerful images that photographers have captured either before or instead of stepping in to help, and offering first-person glimpses into the thought-processes that led them to these decisions.
“I became a photographer and not a person,” one photographer, Hampus Lundgren, said about his first experience shooting the bombing of government offices in Oslo during his first summer job in a newsroom. “It didn’t cross my mind to talk to them,” he said of the victims he photographed. “I don’t know first aid, so I thought the thing I can do, and what I do best, is to document this, show people what happened.”
Another photojournalist, Graeme Robertson, explained how on his first assignments in Iraq, the enormous stress of constantly questioning whether he was doing the right thing by avoiding direct involvement caused him to develop alopecia and lose all of his hair. Eventually, though, he learned that his “power,” as he put it, lay in taking photographs. By meddling in situations of which he had imperfect knowledge, he risked becoming “more of a hindrance than a help.”
“I do believe that our main contribution is trying to get the story understood. And sometimes, when you think you’re helping, you’re actually making a situation worse,” added Radhika Chalasani, who has decided to follow her conscience in her career as a photographer, doing something when it feels appropriate. “You try to do what you can live with,” she concluded.
The inevitable ending to this article is that there has never been, nor is there ever likely to be, a black-and-white formula for covering a tragedy. Like many of the ethical grey zones that have long faced journalists, though, this one has acquired new gradations in a media age marked by high-resolution camera phones, high-bandwidth Internet connections, and the high-speed, horizontal flow of information across social networks.
Some of these additional dimensions open the door for harsher criticism: given that so many citizens are now often armed with the equipment necessary to spread visual evidence of their experiences, has it not become absurd to send professionals in with superior equipment to re-document suffering? And in the crush for page-views, is the pressure to sensationalize and cinematize a tragedy growing stronger?
Evidence of the latter risk can be observed in the wake of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado that claimed 12 lives and wounded more than 50 people 10 days ago. Media outlets around the world, many have argued, responded by making a celebrity out of a killer, and in so doing, risked offering a psychologically disturbed individual exactly the infamy he craves, and fuelling further crimes from potential "copycats."
While certain publications can be seen to have rendered the killer larger than life, networked individuals were busy bearing witness to the tragedy – and to the lives of the victims – in a way that is profoundly personal.
One example lies in the Reddit timeline compiled by user integ3r (later identified by journalists as 18-year-old Morgan Jones from the Denver area), which, in its introduction, follows a list of confirmed victims with a plea to "please keep them in your thoughts,” and a link to a moving appeal by a friend of one young, uninsured couple who were caught in the gunfire for readers to contribute to the cost of medical care.
Admittedly, the social web's screen-shielded detachment can make some people, including journalists, behave in an anti-social manner (one editor’s disturbing tweet following the Aurora shooting is a case in point). However, the growing ubiquity of instantaneous digital connectivity allows strangers united by circumstance to share snapshots of personal experience, and for bystanders joined in empahty to take action, opening a window for a more human way to document tragedy.
Photo Credit: Kevin Carter/Sygma/Corbis via Flickr Creative Commons