Sunday, July 05, 2009

Duty of photographers

FOLLOWING the recent and brutal death of Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran in the aftermath of disturbances following the Iranian elections I had a discussion with a friend about it.

She was horrified by the fact that Neda’s last moments were captured for all the world to see. We both watched the you tube video very uncomfortably and she later described herself as feeling ‘mucky’ having done so; we were voyeurs in the last moments of Neda’s life.

While Neda did not ask to be a symbol of things that are happening, that is what she has become like many others before her.

According to my pal she didn’t ask for this so her last moments should be left alone and away from the glare of the world. But her last moments were on the side of the road with some friends and strangers around her. She didn’t choose that either.

So is it appropriate to film or photograph that? As a photographer that is something I have thought about long and hard. What do you do in that situation? Do you leave your camera at your side? Do you help? Do you take your picture then help? Is taking the picture your duty also?

I’m in two minds over this, on one hand I feel that it is important that events like this are broadcast, so the world sees what is going on. War photographers have captured images which we need to see, photographs that at times have changed the course of events, highlighted injustices and at the very least photographs that have informed the world.

I wonder would the events behind Bloody Sunday have been unfolded as they were if the world hadn’t seen the emotive and hugely disturbing images of bodies and the injured being carried through the streets of Derry. Or what about the iconic Vietnam photograph the Napalm Girl, by Nick Út who captured Kim Phúc, then about nine years old running down a road naked after her village had been subject to a napalm bomb attack.

Interestingly (as it is at the heart of why I am writing this) Út captured the photographer for which he won a Pulitzer Prize before bringing the children to the hospital.

As a photographer that is your duty but my second thought on this is that you have to marry capturing the image with your duty as a human being. If you can help you have to help, and then I think but taking a pic sometimes will take only a split second, however at the end of the day we have a duty also to do what we can.

One thing that was very unsavoury recently was the publishing of photographs of Michael Jackson in the back of an ambulance, serving no purpose whatsoever as did the photographs of Princess Diana in her last moments. There’s no wider message to put out there, other than to line the pockets of paparazzi and satiate the general publics' hungry appetite for so called celebrity news.

After Diana died and the huge outcry over invasion of privacy and how the media were being held to task for pursuing her to her death, not to mention the absolute aggression towards the media in the following weeks. But what is interesting to note is that despite the publics' apparent disdain over the constant Diana coverage (after the fact of course) we have more celeb watch magazines than ever providing exactly the same type of coverage. So where any lessons learned, I don’t think so. I also don’t believe that the public stuck to the principles that were loudly and publicly lamented at the time of Diana’s death, if they did we wouldn’t be seeing the proliferation of so-called celebrity news the way we do. These titles sell because people want it.

Of course this is not a recent phenomenon; but we have more and more easier access to it than ever before. There are no clear lines in this either, as I said in the beginning my pal thought the publishing of Neda's last moments horrific, and while I felt it was an absolutely appalling tragedy that the world needs to know.

Maybe there is a line too far with video, I remember seeing footage when in the States in the 1980s of a kidnapped army captain who was hanged and thinking it was the most awful thing I had ever seen in the world, what about his family? Did I need to see that to realise the awfulness of what had happened to him? To put that point in perspective with everything I have already said that video was made by his murderers and is one of the many points why I felt it shouldn't have been broadcast.

I could be wrong but photographs seem to offer a distance for the viewer more than video does. Thats possibly another post in itself. One of the worries is about becoming desensitised to such images again thats a post for another day.

1 comment:

Rabble said...

I agree to a certain extent - photography captures a moment and freezes it - it can linger with the viewer and therefore be more powerful. Once you've seen a video of somebody been murdered - it is what it is - it cannot be interpreted any different- and only serves to desensitize the viewer and to a degree, dehumanize the subject.