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Spectators And Bystanders

If journalists are spectators, asks Grace Eracleous, how can they be blamed for being passive bystanders? Or should the question be answered differently now that ‘citizens’ and ‘journalists’ are not so far apart?

The Spectator (1711) was one of the founding documents of modern journalism. Ushering in a new kind of publication, it also identified a new kind of job – the journalist – with a new social role, that of the eponymous spectator. Ever since, it has been assumed that the journalist’s top priority is to inform the masses of pressing issues and stories which are within the public interest, while trying to remain objective and impartial – otherwise it’s bias; otherwise, they’re not doing their job, right?

So why was the backlash against Kevin Carter’s infamous Southern Sudan photograph so intensely negative – so much so that it may have been a factor in his subsequent suicide? Also, now that the distinction between journalist and citizen may have been partly broken down with the phenomenon of the ‘citizen journalist’, should we expect the people playing this role to react as journalists or act as concerned citizens? If the former, then being a spectator is still, on balance, how we are supposed to be; but if the latter, then citizen journalists may stand accused of being culpable ‘bystanders’, i.e. guilty of standing by when they should have intervened instead.

First I will re-visit what happened to Kevin Carter, before considering the re-configuration of this ethical issue in the context of ‘we the media’, i.e. more of the general population being able to operate as journalists (more or less).

Kevin and another photojournalist, João Silva, both traveled to Ayod, Sudan (South Sudan) on 11 March 1993 with the United Nations (UN). They were embedded in Operation Lifeline Sudan, a humanitarian campaign to deliver assistance to those in need in war-torn countries. Both went as photojournalists to report on the ripples of famine, poverty and destructiveness the civil war was creating. Carter and Silva were ordered to not touch anyone, to reduce the risk of bringing any infections and diseases back with them to America.

The two photojournalists only had 30 minutes in Sudan to take enough photographs to portray the destructiveness of war for the rest of the world to see.
Kevin, according to João was shocked at the state of Sudan and proceeded to take photographs of the suffering children – meanwhile their parents were queuing for food aid from the UN. This was when Kevin saw the child that we now know as the Struggling Girl; Carter stayed 10 metres away from the girl whilst the vulture landed behind.

He took his pictures and only then proceeded to scare the bird away.

When Carter and Silva returned to America, The New York Times bought Kevin’s picture and the photograph was published on March 26, 1993. Overnight, the NYT received floods of responses asking about the little girl’s fate – the paper did not have a proper answer.

The world accused Kevin of using the malnourished girl as a prop and not a person, saying that he should have helped the little girl instead of taking the picture. One criticism came from the St. Petersburg Times in Florida: ‘the man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.’

What people choose to ignore is that it was Kevin Carter’s job to report on the state of Sudan. In a way, he had to use the child as a prop in the photograph not only to portray what was happening, but, perhaps more importantly, in order for what he knew to be happening, to have any impact in the outside world.

In the same way that ‘sex sells’ in the entertainment industry, journalists know that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

And let me reiterate, Kevin and João were ordered to not touch any of the Sudan civilians.

Photojournalism should carry a complex story and explain it with one picture, or sequence of pictures. Kevin portrayed the state of poverty, helplessness, famine and destructiveness all within one photograph, because it was his job to do so. The visual language of this photograph is universal and therefore, the real conditions in Sudan were shown around the world.

If Kevin had let his personal morals get in the way of his job, the world would have never known about the Sudan girl – or the state of the country. Accordingly, although the photographer was widely criticised, the photograph was also much revered. It won Kevin Carter the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994 – but sadly, three months later, he took his own life.

Since then, such situations have become potentially even more fraught because the position of the journalist has become even more questionable. Facilitated by digital technology, the advent of the ‘citizen journalist’ suggests that we expect people playing this role to be concerned citizens first and journalists second. Moreover, this expectation of quasi-journalists, surely has implications for what the public expect of professional journalists, given that the line between them is nowhere near as clear as it was in the old days of reporters versus their sources.

For a citizen journalist to take this picture without helping the little girl, then I should think the uproar would have been ten times greater. Kevin’s role as a photojournalist took over, whereas if a citizen journalist was fiddling with the lens in order to take this picture, then it would raise some very imperative questions – such as, why was the urge to reach for a camera stronger than the urge to help others in life-threatening situations?

Looking back to the 1990s, my position is as follows: Kevin’s photograph would and should have been taken by somebody else, if not by him, that day. Kevin wasn’t in the wrong for capturing the Sudan child; the world was at fault for losing sight of his job, his responsibilities and the orders he had been given.

But it may be that the situation is not so orderly now as it was then.

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