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nightmare in nairobi: would we have been shown the victims’ faces if they were white?



Maybe it was the surrealism of policemen lying on their bellies, guns ready, between cafe tables; of shattered glass framing a deserted fast food complex; of a terrified family creeping past empty chairs to safety; of extreme violence erupting in a place identical to one we visit weekly.

The world watched last week as a terrorist militant group stormed into Westgate mall in Nairobi, disrupting the sanitised shopping environment with AK-47s and hand grenades.

Our world is one of instant information – global images are swiftly available, and communication is vastly simplified and accessible. Westgate demonstrated the curious intersection between disaster and technology, illustrating how this instantaneousness can impact lives in times of crisis and reveal.

On Saturday21 September, just hours after the mall siege began, the Al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab claimed responsibility, tweeting from their account @HSMPress, which Twitter promptly shut down.

Following live updates on the Kenyan forces’ progress, the military asked local media to be aware of what was being televised – the gunmen could likely see the mall’s TV screens.

And most importantly, images of the dead were broadcast throughout the world – while the siege was still happening.

The New York Times posted “chilling” images from the mall: bodies are lying on the ground. An injured child is being pushed to safety in a shopping trolley.  Police and soldiers marching down an escalator, guns at hand, evacuating interrupted cinemagoers. Camouflaged army officers stalk besides brightly-coloured bottles of laundry detergent. A bloody body is face-down, lying on the bottom steps of a mall entrance. A man is splayed on a tiled floor, his blood smeared all around him. A wounded woman lies on the ground. You can see her face. Another woman’s body. Blood is everywhere. Her face and clothes are clearly visible.

Images from the Reuters Photography blog were reposted hundreds of times on tumblr. All within hours of the outbreak of shooting, and many contained identifiable dead bodies.

The speed with which these photos were shared worldwide seems cruel yet necessary in today’s spirit of immediacy. The question whether graphic photos of the dead should be published has been a topic extensively discussed, and it seems National Press Photographers Association head of ethics John Long sums it up: ‘Does the public need this information in order to make informed choices for society? This would be the driving force behind running sensational photos – not profit, not titillation.’

But the biggest question is this: Would the fast distribution of graphic, identifiable images of the dead have occurred if the victims were white?

There are examples of photos of tragedy in America being televised. While the famous 9/11 image of the Falling Man has been widely published, news networks refused to show footage of citizens plummeting out of buildings.

Yet Western media seems to be comfortable displaying gratuitous images of developing world tragedy.

After the publication of the New York Times photos described above, there were many complaints.

Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of New York Times, responded via Twitter with the words: ‘Photo no longer on NYT home page.’

Followers then replied with thanks, but pushed on: would the images have been published were the faces white? Sullivan’s reply: ‘Very good question and worth exploring. I don’t know.’

@justwacuka, tweeting from Nairobi, shot back: ‘Forgive my cynicism, but the answer is Of course not. There’s no way the NYT’s *ever* run such pix of Westerners…Africans, on the other hand, are seen as totally anonymous; ‘numbers’ to demonstrate the scope of ‘atrocities’.’

While the strong sentiment of *ever * might not be entirely true, Sullivan does reveal ‘many readers find graphic photographs of foreigners far easier to take than those of Americans.’

Oh, OK. So if dead people are brown, that’s much less horrific?

Christian Christensen, a journalism professor in Sweden, declares that the media will willingly publish photos of the dead when in “developing nations”, yet not when the victims are in France, Britain, the US, etc.

The Stockholm University professor explains our fondness for tragedy porn through the lens of the 2004 tsunami. He and millions around the world were glued to their televisions, fascinated by death toll counters and footage of enormous waves washing away houses, until BBC showed the footage of a naked man hanging from a tree.

‘I wondered how I would feel,’ he writes, ‘If that naked boy had been a member of my family, his undignified death a passing spectacle for all the world to see over their mugs of morning coffee.’

It’s the disconnect; the idea that these deaths are geographically removed from the West – we find it harder to relate, to empathise with people who look differently to us (that’s the whole basis of Australia’s refugee policy!)

Christensen also details the ‘legacy of 1980s famine coverage’ of Africa as legitimisation of the Nairobi massacre images. News reports illustrating conditions in Ethiopia and Eritrea meant that Western audiences repeatedly observed pictures of starvation.

‘It is reasonable to ask if the residuals of these images remain with us (and the media) making the image of the dead in Westgate more acceptable.’

Comments on the New York Times gallery mirror these sentiments.

Nelson from Florida: ‘Those innocent victim are someone’s father,brother,sister etc and you are quite insensitive to that, clearly. How come we have never seen a single image of a dead body in 9/11, the Boston bombing,etc?’

Nick of Washington, D.C. Writes: ‘I really wish the NYT would publish – on the front page – as many gory photos as possible of the murderous mayhem produced by our own mass shootings…People need to see it, instead of sticking their heads in the sand and pretending it only happens in “uncivilized” countries such as Kenya. ‘

S Spring: ‘Perhaps [the lack of white victims in gallery] is a coincidence, or perhaps the privacy and dignity of these individuals and their loved ones are lesser in the eyes of a western editor.’

Put simply, this Westgate business brings us to an uncomfortable reality.

Thanks to foreign reporting, we have become used to seeing people of colour as victims. Does the “otherness” of people in the developing world strip them of their humanity? Is the Western world truly more horrified by the death of a white person?

Have we therefore given higher value to a white life?

3 thoughts on “nightmare in nairobi: would we have been shown the victims’ faces if they were white?

  1. I think there is a certain racial dimension to the Naroboi shootings (the focus on the “White Widow” to the neglect of all other suspects, the obsession with the role of the Israeli special forces, for example), but this article seems to not just be about “white people are inherently more valued in Western media”, but rather “the media deliberately posted pics of dead black people and not the ones of dead white people” which seems like a massive claim.

    The fact is, white people *do* take pictures of dead white people – you just showed an example in a link. The Columbine footage is another example. There’s wounded, incapacitated white people in various Boston Bombing photos. Indeed, the fact that our popular media, in games, in television, is filled with images of white people killing white people shows we must have some level of desensitisation to it.

    However, while we can argue about the intrinsic newsworthiness of poor black man killed versus white middle class man killed, I think its a massive claim to say that the Reuters photographers were selectively leaving out pictures of dead people, and its all the more worse because those NYT commenters are throwing pretty offensive allegations at the NYT editor based on not very much.

    Could one not consider that perhaps a Reuters journalist, simply out of the laws of probability, could have been in a position to only take photos of Kenyan deceased (which would be the majority because it’s in Kenya) in his brief few minutes in the Mall?

    The NYT commenters, however, apparently prefer to take the large and complex issue of ethnic representation in media, and shoehorn it into a rather nasty and baseless accusation that the particular reuters photographers and their editors are viciously racist. eg. “‘Perhaps [the lack of white victims in gallery] is a coincidence, or perhaps the privacy and dignity of these individuals and their loved ones are lesser in their eyes.” translates to = there might be logistical reasons why the photo gallery is like this, but instead I’m just going to assume you’re a racist who insidiuously delights in the pain of anguished non-white people. Gee thanks S Spring.

  2. I asked the exact same question. I think it was so surprising because I had never seen so many images of dead people without a warning, yet even social websites like buzzfeed were displaying them. Mass shootings occur so often in America, and we are spared from images of those victims. What is the difference if not in appearance?

  3. I first saw an Asian woman in the Age daily news 20 years ago, carried by her killers tied to a pole spit-style. I wondered then why they showed her like that. I still cry even now over that moment. For her. I don’t think it’s right, but it happens. The children in Syria, Lebanon etc…all shown. One 9 year old Lebanese girl in hospital spoke. “That is my little sister in the bed next to me, she is dead. Tell them they are killing children!”
    We then have to act as citizens to halt these horrific wars where innocents are slaughtered. We live with an acceptance of violence in society when it erupts. We need consider what emotional energies are being repressed and bubbling up all over the world in acts of war and violence.
    We need to be filled with love not hate. We need to do this to heal the trouble spots where hatred wells up.

    It’s all of us who are responsible on an emotion, energetic and mental level for the mass unconscious and how it percolates then explodes. Let’s percolate positive energy and face our negativity and transform it.

    Great story. Thank you brave soul.

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