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“Forget the ethics! What good does risk-taking photojournalism serve in a hostage massacre?”

“Forget the ethics! What good does risk-taking photojournalism serve in a hostage massacre?”

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Published by Danni Karanja
An open letter of critical assessment to New York Times award winning photo journalist Tyler Hicks on his reportage of the Nairobi Westgate hostage crisis.
An open letter of critical assessment to New York Times award winning photo journalist Tyler Hicks on his reportage of the Nairobi Westgate hostage crisis.

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Published by: Danni Karanja on Sep 29, 2013
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09/29/2013

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“Forget the ethics! What
 good 
does risk-taking photojournalism serve in a hostage massacre?”Mr. Hicks,I’m writing this letter to you in the hope of starting a dialogue between us. I trust my belligerent title givesaway the subject matter and intended hypothesis of this letter. I want this to be an open letter becauseunlike on the night of the 21st of September, when I was one of the first people to view the slideshow of your photographs on the NYT website, it is evident that you have received several thousand hits alongwith more than 100 comments. These comments range from zealous praise of your work, to stiff yethumble criticism. For this reason, I believe that what I have to say will be of particular interest to thegeneral public, and it would be selfish of us to keep this illuminating conversation to ourselves. (I use thisword liberally, but the achievement of a ‘conversation’ will depend on your will to respond.Many people, who know me, are well aware of the fact that I’m no stranger to divisive debates normally playing devil’s advocate, often soliciting unproven iconoclastic thoughts and esoteric theologies.However on a personal level we are no strangers to each other. I am an independent film maker, in the Nairobi area, and frequently leisure and work in Karura forest. I recorded a short audio interview withyou and your wife in early 2012, for a documentary piece I was doing on the forest.I shall begin by copy pasting a message I sent to a friend on Facebook on the night of the 21st regardingmy horror after viewing your “acclaimed” reportage of the Westgate crisis;
“Its just been a stressful night! Its 4:00am here and I just came back from the morgue. Picture number 15 inTyler’s photo essay….is a picture of my 2nd cousin. His name is Chris. He was 22 years old. After hours of frantically looking for him- (including actually going to Westgate and looking ourselves) we found him cold. He deserves better than tobe on a website as another nameless statistic under the tab "Africa". I can go the long route and contact the NewYork Times to remove the photo and get Tyler's email...” 
The photograph is that of a young man (from several angles) in a beige T-shirt and jeans lying alone onthe steps to the mall. I had visited your website a few hours earlier, but I either didn’t see the photograph because it had not been uploaded yet, or could not recognize him because of the dislocated bloodied statehe was in, and the mass amount of photographs that were flashing before me. (I’ll get to that point in thenext four paragraphs*).Forget the fact that I have a personal interest in this. Forget the fact that this sort of photo journalism isinsensitive, dehumanizing, unethical and illegal (I’ll get to those four points later). Forget the fact that youmiraculously are able to sleep at night having made the decision to “do your job” and take photographs of 
 
 people in dire pain and suffering. Forgetting all these facts… what exactly do you do Mr. Hicks?I’m aware that professionally you are a photo journalist, but I guess my question is, what is the purpose of your profession? What desired effect do you wish to have on the general public on viewing your work? I phrase the question as such because in one sense it is rhetorical, as it is a safe bet that most certainly youhave a humanistic agenda and outlook on the potential for your work.Do not misunderstand me. Your work can have powerful far reaching psychologically stimulating effectson people. But as far as I’m concerned that’s where it ends. In this global village internet-age, your  photographs are disseminated so quickly so fast, that they just blur into cyber space as pornographicfodder for the masses to consume. They view your gory images mostly without context, and their thoughts produce a one dimensional altruistic viewpoint, that merely serves as a paradigm to further cement their long held prejudices. No or very little action is taken by your audience after that. They might feel someform of warped sympathy, but this feeling comes out of the commoditized suffering of others.Most would say the aim of photo journalism is to tell a story, bring balanced unbiased truthful insight on asituation. But how can this be possible when the medium of photography is so subjective? Depending onwhom you are, your culture, race, age, sex, you’ll have a million and one different interpretations of thesame photograph, all of them fueled by illogical instinctual human prejudices, thoughts and ignorance.*In our frantic look for my cousin and in-between that and searching the internet for news and informationyour barrage of photographs served no purpose except to further heighten our fears. It was only after wecame back from the morgue at about 4:00am that we identified him in your photographs. Now I cannot beyond a reasonable doubt ascertain that the photograph was published prior to finding the body at themorgue, but all the same it is atrocious that it would be online for the world to see while the family is still processing the horror.Images of injured or worse still, dead African people do nothing else but simply dehumanize theindividuals photographed, turning their whole human essence, their story, their life, their joy, their pain,everything that makes you and me a person- objectified into a still photograph. Simply reduced into animage in a news story; a statistic. For the dead, without a voice that is the last memory the world will haveof them.Google searching your name, I know that you have considerable experience working in war zones (Gaza,and Afghanistan). I am not sure if Westgate was your first time photographing a hostage situation, but bythe looks of it, I would assume so.Allow me to belittle you for a moment. The main difference between a hostage
crisis
and
war
/
conflict
is a
 
hostage situation involves unarmed civilians under siege in a
locked off 
area by armed assailants, with the police or Special Forces attempting to diffuse the situation. The crisis also is an
isolated
event in both a physical and actual sense. It is
NOT
an ongoing
conflict
or 
war
. Where your work might have somecredence is in war or conflict zones where an innocent civilian population is caught in a battle between twoopposing forces. The innocent civilians are bystander victims. Their suffering is continual, unlawful, andnot a consideration to either fighting factions.In a war zone or conflict (such as with the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya) we needed photo journalists to show how innocent civilians were being targeted by mobs and the violence that was also being perpetuated by the police. There is a lot of fog in a war or conflict. Photo journalism can clear this by documenting over the period of time, what the atrocities were and who is committing them. In ahostage situation this is completely unnecessary because this fog of war does not exist. Action is beingtaken to free and assist the victims by the police force or military, so showing the graphic dehumanizing photographs you took serves no helpful motivational call to action for your audience. There was nothinganyone could do. Rather your actions exemplify the photo-media centric doctrine that consumes our world: The more we photograph our lives, the people around us, places and events (however tragic); themore democracy will flourish and humanity will prosper.Another point that angered me Mr. Hicks, is when you enter an officially police sealed hostage crisis,whether you meet any or no resistance getting in (however video evidence shows other journalists were practically fighting with military soldiers when they were barred from entering the mall) you are breakingthe law, and worse still, making the job of the military increasingly dangerous by being another unarmedcivilian who is an additional target for the terrorists. I think in this context unlike a war/conflict wherethere are no legal restrictions on your movement you’ll begin to realize just how, to put it kindly,inconsiderate, but to put it bluntly,
stupid
your actions were!Your actions also display an undertone of foreign superiority, in taking advantage of an African crisis.What you and the other journalists were able to pull off would have never happened in the United States or Europe. Your moral code of ethical journalism would have at some point kicked in and you would nothave liberally published such graphic images including identifiable dead subjects. Your respect for the ruleof law and the police force would have kept you from entering the building. For example in the last fiveU.S public shootings, we did not see pictures of the dead and injured victims.At least discretion must be practiced, and your choice of photos must only show the victims in a dignifiedlight.Mr. Hicks this is something you and many of your colleges need to seriously consider. I urge you not to

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