Garissa massacre and the dissemination of graphic photos

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In her seminal collection of essays aptly titled “On Photography,” Susan Sontag explores the depth and breadth of how images “educate” us on a daily basis.

“In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” she writes in In Plato’s Cave, the first essay in the collection.

Images “are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing,” she writes. “Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.”

On April 2, we were reminded of the brutality of mindless violence and the “ethics of seeing” with the assault on a university in northeastern Kenya. At least four al-Shabaab gunmen attacked Garissa University College in a siege that lasted for over 15 hours and left 148 people dead.

In a typical world, we would have had to wait for traditional media outlets to sift through the bloody mess, appropriate the images, and show us what is “relevant” and what is not.

In the past, whether in Vietnam, Somalia, South Sudan or Ukraine, the front pages of newspapers took over the collective responsibility of what we could and could not see.

But we live in the digital age. A rogue attitude pervades the online community’s collective sense of what we can see and share. Here is, finally, a medium that has zero regard for what is appropriate, what is disturbing, and in general, a medium that cannot be bothered with the overarching principles of photography.

Garissa was a stark reminder of these issues.

Images of students, all shot dead in cold blood, were taken and freely circulated. In one photo, they are huddled, faces down, arms stretched as if in search for the warmth of life.

Most of those who shared this image online invoked the “necessity” to share this specific photo to highlight the damage done. What a lot of people did not consider is the gratuitous insult they inflicted on the families of these victims – not to mention the possibility of identifying their loved ones lying dead in, devoid of their last dignity of the dead.

What we also learn from posting these kinds of gruesome photos online is that comparisons are always galore. The cruelty of the world today, from beheadings carried by the Islamic State group in Iraq to shooting of children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the decision to publish or not publish is always, as the old cliché goes, a damned one.

When The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson and The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman posted the photo on Twitter, the conversation turned to whether they would have shared the photo if those were students in an American university. Anderson defended his decision to share the photo by stating that mass murder was “disrespectful. If we hadn’t seen images of the Holocaust’s stacked bodies, even more people” would be “in denial.”

When the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor pressed him by saying he would have received a lot of flak if those images were students in the U.S., he retorted by saying that he believes that there was a difference “between sharing this image, showing the extent of Shabaab’s crime, and sharing photos” in general.

If there’s one thing that social media has perfected, it is the art of blurring the line of when and when not to publish. Even though outlets like Twitter have mechanisms to help us avoid sensitive materials, many images still screen through and are pushed into our daily reality.

In the meantime, traditional media outlets are still having discussions about how to curate, verify and post gruesome images online. As Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted in 2012, media outlets are still wondering about whether they should run graphic images “prominently on the homepage or submerge them in an article? Link to them instead? And how to warn readers?”

When the South African photographer, Kevin Carter, published his photo of a vulture stalking a child, it collectively changed how governments and aid agencies responded to despair in Africa. The same can be said about Mohamed Amin’s photos from the famine in Ethiopia, or Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of a nude nine-year-old girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam. All these images were riveting and they created a conversation across the world both privately and at the public policy levels.

Today, those same conversations are amplified online, and the decision to publish and share is no longer in newsrooms staffed with editors who adhere to a strict code of journalistic conduct. On the contrary, the decisions are no longer just personal but also universal – intensified by the hundreds of millions of people using social media. These critical decisions are often times made by iPhone-wielding, 15 years olds.

This phenomenon might also be the reason why a lot of people have resolved to making posters or artwork online, just to be less crude and more visual in their resonance with grisly murders like these.

Almost forty years after the publication of Sontag’s book, the discussion she started still resonates in our daily lives. However, that discussion has completely been shifted: from one of personal reflection to one of collective familiarity that in turn has universal repercussions.

As one follower responded to Gettleman’s posting of the photo said: “This is just terrible. I had not looked close. I didn’t want to see – the longer I stare, I can hear and see their hopes and dreams.”

Follow Abdi Latif on Twitter: @Lattif

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