Publishing Insensitive Photographs of Westgate Mall Massacre Victims

12 Min Read

By Africa on

Although the four-day terror attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall is over, the images of the day will continue to live on in newspapers and on the internet. The majority of photos that were widely publicized by news agencies around the world were taken by photojournalists from the Global North. As the photos made their way into the homes of audiences worldwide, many Africans cringed over the manner in which photos of Kenyan victims were handled. The photos naturally included images of the rescue efforts, grieving families, traumatized victims and the injured. However, they also included photos of the deceased.

When examining the type of images that were published by photojournalists from the Global North, it was clear that they assumed responsibility to their publishers and audiences in the Global North – they told the unabridged story as it unfolded. It was also evident that they did not exercise the same ethical judgment that they use when deciding what photos to publish during similar attacks in the their own countries. If publishing photos of deceased terror victims is decried as deplorable for victims in the Global North why is it acceptable for terrorist attacks in Kenya? Photojournalists from the Global North should exercise some level of moral responsibility to the people, places and events when covering the Global South.

“If it Bleeds it Leads”

Photojournalists combine photography and journalism in order to tell a story about places, peoples or events. Much of their work includes covering war, bombings and other acts of terror – their pictures contribute to news media. In doing so, they create grand narratives about breaking news events. In the past, their work has served an important role in exposing corrupt regimes, mass murders, human rights violations and other atrocities worldwide – as was the case in Vietnam, Egypt, Rwanda, and South Africa and the American civil rights movement. They have played an important role in shaping history – this why it is often difficult to hold them accountable or responsible for times when they offend the continent by exercising poor judgement.

Their work should ideally fall within the same ethical approaches to objectivity and content creation as other journalists. Photojournalists are instrumental in deciding what images to take, edit or to publish for public consumption. Copy editors are also important players in deciding what content gets published. They determine which stories, photos or captions will eventually run and be featured prominently. Their role in this process can therefore not be ignored either. Photojournalists often take photos knowing what types of images will sell. They pander to an audience in the Global North that is attracted to horrific images and sensational headlines. The narratives the images told to this audience in the case of the Kenyan mall attack, exhibited a profound lack of sensitivity to Kenyan victims and their families.

Photos of African Bodies:

The photos we saw of the Westgate Mall were harrowing. They showed photos of deceased victims lying in pools of blood or with head shot wounds and the like. The majority of them from seasoned wartime photojournalists Goran Tomasevic (Reuters) and Tyler Hicks (New York Times). Many of their images included clearly identifiable victims who remained nameless in the captions that went world-wide. One can assume that little or no attempt was made to find their identities nor to seek consent from any of their families given the haste in which the photos were released. In fact, Kenyan film maker, Danni Karanja published a scathing open letter to Hicks and the New York Times where he identifies one of the victims as his cousin, “Chris” in “photo #15” in order to humanize the victim. He further narrates how his family came across the photos shortly after identifying his body at the morgue in Nairobi.

His story is probably not an isolated case. In an internet age, images travel around the globe instantly. There are probably several Kenyan families living within Kenya or in the Diaspora that found out that there loved-ones were deceased through their photography online, whilst trying to find out news about the attack. This type of insensitivity should not be simply excused by messages from the site warning viewers of ‘graphic’ content. There needs to be some moral responsibility by journalists. In today’s world, images are no longer contained to one corner of the globe as in the past. Kenyans were confronted with these images on Facebook, twitter and elsewhere online. Victim’s families and friends should not have to learn about deaths in this way. Ignoring the grief of Kenyans is problematic for African and non-African audiences alike.

Representing Africa

Audiences from the Global North have been bombarded with such images from the Global South for such a long time that it’s become normal. That is what Africa is like to them – a series of violent incidents.  In fact, they have become so desensitized to seeing dead bodies from the Global South that editors and photojournalists do not seem to pause for reflection when deciding whether or not to publish such graph images may be offensive. Instead, when dealing with the Global South, there is a frenzy to ‘expose’ atrocities and ‘Save Africa’ by graphically exposing African violence and ‘brutality’ for the good of humanity! This plays in to old stereotypes of the continent as a big war zone. The fact that it took place in a mall in the capital city did not do much to steer away popular stereotypes.

In fact, the four day hostage situation was covered as a war zone situation – the photographs helped frame it as such. In part, it may be because the photos came from seasoned war photojournalists used to capturing dead bodies in the Global South. In part, it may be reflective of their general profession that was born out of covering war stories. Although whether it should be sanctioned in a ‘real’ war zone is also problematic. This war zone narrative of Africa sells headlines or boosts careers. It also give us insight as to which bodies privileged by the media.

Whose Lives are Worthy of Grief?

Victims included women, men, children, Asian, Africans and Western shoppers who became victims of terror. However, many of the identifiable deceased were Black and Asian Kenyans. Therefore, we need to be cognizant of the different standards used in international media when publishing photos depicting deceased members of these racial groups. Furthermore, we need to pay attention to the value that they are placing on African bodies. Unidentifiable bodies of White victims were also shown (perhaps, African) however, this may not have occurred if it were White bodies located in the Global North. Years after some of the public mass shootings in America, I have yet to see a picture readily available online showing the victims (although one can readily find photos of deceased killers whom many do not sympathize with).

The Class of the victims also played a role in the coverage the images received. Kenya’s tragedies were highlighted in the international media because it was a massacre of the rich and the affluent. News reporters reminded us of class divisions by noting that this was an ‘affluent’ mall frequented by wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. A village massacre in a Kenyan village would have probably received far less international coverage. Therefore we need to be cognizant about the privileging of the wealthy by the media. However, since they were affluent in the Global South, there was less emphasis of protecting these victims the same way as the affluent in the Global North.

The American public for example, widely consumes gruesome images. The climate in American journalism is such that graphic images will sell more papers. However, even in the U.S there is some sensitivity used in deciding what gets published.  Mass shootings are typically highly sensitive subjects. During the past few years, as an example, images of the massacred victims at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, or even Sandy Hook have not been released for public consumption out of respect for the victims and their families. In fact, when Michael Moore publicly suggested that the photos of the Sandy Hook victims be published to shock the public into taking action against the NRA, the public was upset.  Some argued that he was exploiting the victims for his own political cause or self-promotion. The same arguments should be made for decisions to publish photos for any victims of public acts of terror – wherever the attacks occur.

Giving Life to the Deceased

Time and time again, we see countless African bodies remain nameless. The world has become desensitized to seeing African bodies as human beings. The ‘Africaness’ of the victims seemed to have made it ‘permissible’ to publishing the type of photos that emerged during the Kenyan mall attack. Whereas in the past there were few platforms to express their concerns. Kenyans like Karanja are now able to write back, shame photojournalists for exercising poor moral judgment – and name the victims. Hopefully, this will lead to more sensitive coverage of Africa’s deceased.

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