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’.’
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?