Monday , 28 April 2014

Ways to depict sensitive subjects in photography

by Dolphine Emali

Kenya’s Government spokesperson Mr Muthui Kariuki recently complained about a photograph that was carried in one of our dailies, The Star. In an open letter to the Media Council of Kenya that was also posted on his official facebook page, he disapproves of the publication of a graphic photo of a dead woman and her baby in the paper. The same image was used in a blog.

Muriuki’s main concern is that the image is disturbing. “As the Office of Public Communication and Government Spokesperson, we are extremely disturbed and concerned by the picture of a dead mother and child carried by The Star as it depicts Kenya to the global community, as a nation of savages who do not care about human life, especially the lives of women and children.”

This isn’t the first time the newspaperhas been accused of publishing an image that is in bad taste and in breach of the journalists’ code of ethics on its front page. This blog captures reactions to another photo that what criticized for being too graphic.

In the letter, the Government spokesman reminds journalists of guidelines on publishing photos of mutilated bodies, bloody incidents and abhorrent scenes.

The Media Act Cap 411B Second schedule 9b states that publication of such photographs “…should be avoided unless the publication or broadcast of such photographs will serve the public interest”.Of course the public interest can be interpreted in different ways as the comments on his facebook page depict.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 11.54.00 AM
I looked at the image at length. First as a reader who’s engaging with the information. Then as a photographer who may be on the same assignment. I wondered if I’d make the same photograph. I figured I’d be too angry about lives lost without a meaningful explanation – because photographers do get affected by their work. I’d probably want people to react in the same way. Unfortunately some of those people would be seeking revenge on seeing upsetting images of their loved ones. But most would want something done so that it doesn’t happen again. Still, would it be wrong to publish the image? A similar argument was triggered by a story that was published in New York Post.  A renowned photographer responds to the New York Post debate here, and there’ve been many more. The one I find most interesting is this one titled When should graphic images be published?’ where Kenneth Irby a photojournalist and academic is interviewed for by Tony Rogers over images from Haiti’s earthquake.

On reflection, when covering sensitive topics, I always ask myself how I’d want to be depicted if I was the subject. This answer ultimately determines how I frame the shot. Like many people who tell their stories, the dead too may want to move on from their tragedies. They may want that people know their stories. They may also want that their stories to prevent any similar tragedies befalling others. A photojournalist is tasked with the decision of the best presentation of their subject dead or alive. Sensitively. Accurately. Fairly.

I read a blog piece by the photographer. He comes across as a man who cares about his subject. In this blog, he shares photos of inter-communal violence in Kenya including the one below.

©Reuters/Seigfield Modola

©Reuters/Seigfield Modola

While the law cautions journalists on sensitivity around death and other disturbing scenes, in the same Media Act (Cap 411B) second schedule 9a states In general, journalists should avoid publishing obscene, vulgar or offensive material unless such material contains a news value which is necessary in the public interest.” The news value is mostly left to the editors to decide.

I must say, the poignancy of the image hits a nerve every time I look at it. I’m not appalled by the photograph. Just shocked that among us exist people capable of inflicting such pain on others. I hope that whoever published the image consulted the family for they’d be the most affected by it. That said, as a photographer, I would have made that same photograph. Evidence that it indeed happened.

Famous photojournalists like Robert Capa have shown death with mixed reviews in the past. Like his famous 1936 portrait of Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death’, during the Spanish civil war. Over 70 years later, Capa’s image of the falling soldier is  a classic. Making its way to best examples of what a photographer’s reaction to violence and death can be. More than a violent image, the image acted as an early warning, contributing to important discussions on the rise of European dictatorships in the mid 20th Century.

©Robert Capa/Magnum

©Robert Capa/Magnum


  • Andreas Peter Wiegand

    When does a photo violates the diginity of a person, a dead person, a person who is suffering? That is a very difficult question and for the person behind the camera even more. What is more embarassing is avoiding the documentation. Humans are violating the dignity of their neighbour, kill each other and cause so much physical and psychological pain. Photos can sometimes express more than words.