With the arrival of television, another kind of manipulation has become common place: the staged news event. Many groups anxious for media exposure create events for that coverage. The presence of the media does not discourage violent acts, but rather encourages it. In a recent issue of TIME Magazine, a series of two photographs were presented which graphically illustrate this fact. These images were so disturbing that TIME ran an article about these photographs in the following week's issue of TIME. I was immediately drawn to these two photographs due to what the depicted: the total disregard of human life.
These two photographs highlight another issue of the journalist: Life vs. story. Should a journalist attempt to prevent someone's death when it is in their power to do so, even at the expense of the story? What are the moral obligations of the observer?
These photographs initially appeared in the March 21, 1994 issue of TIME along with the article entitled, "Apartheid Apocalypse"1, subtitled, "The attempt to salvage a vestige of racial separatism in blood". This article describes the death of three members of the South African Afrikaner Resistance Movement in Bophuthatswana. The three dead men were a part of a failed attempt to defend a remnant of apartheid.
Both photographs2 show a medium blue, older Mercedes sedan, parked by the side of a road. Its driver's side doors are flung open. Three fourths of the image shows bare, dusty ground where nothing is growing. Both images show three white men laying on the ground, in front of the drivers side of the Mercedes.The first man is dressed in desert combat clothes. He is laying on the ground, his hips on the ight side, twisted at his waist, chest to the ground, left arm under his body, right hand at his face. Blood has soaked into the ground around his right arm and head. He is dead.
The second man's head is at the right rear wheel of the car. In the first photograph he is laying on his right side, with his arms held up as if to signify he is not a threat. He is very much alive. In the second photograph he is flat on his back, head at the rear wheel of the car, body almost perpendicular to the side of the car. He is now dead.
The third man is laying on his stomach. His feet are at the knees of the first man. He is perpendicular to the car. His arms are slightly flexed and out in front of his body, pushing his chest off of the ground, his head up as if to say what has happened? He is alive. In the second photograph, his chest is on the ground, his head is face down and the arms fold at the top of his head. Blood soaks the ground from under his chest and runs off the frame in the lower left hand corner. He is dead.
The article states quotes the two men as asking for assistance before their deaths. Moments later a black soldier stepped forward and calmly executes them with an automatic rifle.
Two images of the same event, two men alive and then dead, while journalists watched; an unbelievable image. If it were not for the reputation of TIME and AP, one could easily believe that these photographs were a setup. It was all too convenient. Images of the same event by two different photographers the following week, illustrate the shear reality of the situation. As James Nachtwey3 of TIME stated, "No one thought they were going to be killed. We thought they were safe because we were there, [that] they wouldn't shoot them with cameras around. It was totally unreasonable."
A group of photographers stand by, just waiting for the news photograph, doing nothing to help save two human lives. This series of photographs brings to the forefront the issue of life vs. news coverage. If lives can be saved, isn't that more important than the photograph? Cobus Bodenstein4 stated, "I took a few overalls of the whole scene. I was wondering what to do next. [Then] I heard a shot and saw a head jump. I lifted the camera and started shooting until the [shooter] turned on us, screaming in Tswana, pointing the rifle at us. Ten of his colleagues seemed to cock their rifles. So we ran away. I new that lunacy was playing a big role... If any journalist, especially a white journalist, would have so much as touched those people, we would have died with them..." Kevin Carter stated, "...Why didn't we help them? I personally appealed to a policeman, `Take your prisoners and lock them up.' But some [other] poor policeman had just discovered one of the bodies that the [neo-Nazis] shot, a civilian. He was angry..." It is apparent that these lives could not be saved, but this issue presents a constant moral dilemma to the photojournalist covering these situations.
News coverage constantly reminds us of our humanity and of the horror that exists in the world. It forces us to witness the violent acts of peoples of differing ideologies. It is disturbing to be forced to view the death of two men - a cold, calculating death, witnessed by many cameras. Yet my view is via a sterile photograph. I did not witness the event. It takes a unique person to cover these events without emotional trauma and to constantly battle the moral dilemma that is inherent in the job. Photojournalists provide a necessary service to humanity, but hopefully not at the expense of human life.
(2) Photographs were taken by David Brauchli, Associated Press.
(3) page 23, TIME Magazine, March 28, 1994
(4) page 23, TIME Magazine, March 28, 1994.
Catherine J. Thompson,
Last Modified: March 4, 1996