On the Indignity of Crisis Photos

Photo: Adobe Stock

On the afternoon of January 15, a group of armed assailants entered 14 Riverside Drive, an upscale hotel and office complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The attackers, members of Al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group, opened fire on patrons of the DusitD2 Nairobi hotel and other businesses on the grounds, leaving 21 people dead and many more injured.

As fear rippled through the capital and the rest of the country, details of the attack were shared online. The New York Times, in its initial report, published a gruesome photo of victims, their bullet-riddled bodies slumped over, dead, in their chairs at a café. 

When the Times article started circulating, Kenyan officials hadn’t yet declared the Riverside episode over. People were still trying to confirm the whereabouts of their parents, children, and friends; the security operation continued until the early hours of the next morning. The idea of discovering the death of a loved one in such a public way seemed cruel; soon, commentators in Kenya and around the world grew incensed by what they viewed as a callous disregard for the citizens shown in the photo, and for a nation in mourning.

ICYMI: Tragic AP photo from the border unleashes immediate outpouring of emotion

The image, taken by an Associated Press photographer, was startling—and unlike the kind that American news outlets tend to distribute from violent scenes in the United States. (Exceptions—like the Falling Man, photographed by Richard Drew for the AP at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—draw intense scrutiny.) That the Times and other foreign publications—including the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail and Germany’s Bild—chose to trade in shock value struck many as an instance of “othering” the victims and survivors of the attack. “It’s extremely harmful,” my mother said when we discussed the incident a few weeks later. She wondered how outsiders would interpret the photo. “A lot of these people have never visited Africa, so their reactions and thoughts on what it’s like there are based on what they see and read.” The image showed Kenyans that their suffering could easily be transformed into a crude spectacle for a faraway audience.

My mother, Esther, is Kenyan, and large parts of my extended family live in the country. My immediate family was based in Nairobi in the early to mid-2000s; our house was in Westlands, the same neighborhood where the siege was underway. The 14 Riverside complex was built after we moved, but it’s directly behind the compound where one of my closest childhood friends used to live. 

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I came across the uproar over the photo while checking on loved ones from a distance—a routine that has become disturbingly familiar to me. In the years since my family left Kenya, terrorist attacks and waves of politically motivated violence have hurt or killed hundreds of people. The emigrants in my family have become quite efficient at establishing a kind of phone tree, crossing names off the list as relatives answer the roll call. But the same tools that were designed to help share information quickly (smartphones, social-network timelines) in a reassuring way can distribute devastation at a similar clip.

When I asked my mother if she’d seen the photo going around, she said that she’d heard about the outrage but refused to click. “I never look at those pictures,” she explained. “I think they’re just too gruesome—and once I see them, I can’t unsee them.” She understood that the 24-hour news cycle compels outlets to publish fast. “But can you imagine if you were in the family of one of the people who was killed, you had no idea that the attack had happened, and the first thing you do is see your loved one in such terrible pictures?” she asked. “For me, it’s just unforgivable.”

 

Hassan Santur, the managing editor of BRIGHT Magazine, was in his office, separated from the attack by one of Nairobi’s main highways, when a colleague told him of the first gunshots at Riverside. The magazine’s staff quickly focused their attention on the news; Santur published an essay on ethical photography the next day. BRIGHT, like the Daily Nation and The Standard—two of Kenya’s most widely read newspapers—didn’t depict the dead in its dispatch; the Media Council of Kenya advocates against publishing “bloody incidents and abhorrent scenes” unless they “will serve the public interest.”

“If the attack took place closer to home, I think the [Times] editors would’ve made a different choice because they would’ve processed the anguish of the families of the victims differently,” Santur told me later. “They would’ve been able to see them as their own families and friends instead of strangers thousands of miles away. That kind of geographic and emotional distance allows some journalists to see the victims as a ‘story’ rather than human beings whose grief and loss are as real and painful as ours.”

“It is possible to tell the story of terror without splashing bloody images on your front page.”

Photography, alongside literature, film, and journalism, has long been a tool for widening the emotional distance between Africa and the rest of the world. In the early 20th century, when most of the continent was under European control, photography played a powerful role in furthering European stereotypes of Black and brown people as savage and uncivilized, as a means to justify the imperialist exercise—notably in the form of colonial postcards, which displayed African regalia, traditions, and bodies as oddities that existed outside of so-called Western norms. A straight line can be drawn between this practice and the way African countries continue to be depicted in contemporary media that doesn’t originate on the continent or consider its people to be a valuable, discerning readership.

In 1993 a singular image, Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in present-day South Sudan, was deemed a “metaphor for Africa’s despair.” The picture, of a malnourished toddler struggling to find relief from famine during the Second Sudanese Civil War, is one of the most memorable representations of conflict and its haunting consequences. But to imply that it alone could exemplify an entire continent—home to an estimated 682 million people that year, and made up of countries at different stages on the postcolonial journey—should likewise be noted as a stark example of Western reductionism and pessimism when it comes to Africa. More than 25 years later, between the pictures of emaciated boys and girls that crop up in charity advertisements around the holidays and the context-deficient renderings of poverty and dysfunction used in humanitarian leaflets, it’s a shame to see the same shortsighted stories being told over and over.

 

The African online community and Africans in the diaspora have been keeping track of how their stories are covered,” Waihiga Mwaura, a journalist for Kenya’s Citizen TV, told me. On the day of the Riverside attack, Mwaura had just enough time to confirm that his wife was safe before going on camera to report the story live. “When a tragedy happens in the West,” he continued, “images of bravery and survival against all odds dominate the headlines, but the opposite happens when the attack is on African soil.”

There was some important context to grapple with: since 2011, Kenyan military forces have been in neighboring Somalia, fighting to eradicate Al Shabaab, which in turn has carried out retaliatory attacks. This has resulted in sociopolitical tensions within Kenya and across the border—tensions that were at the root of the Riverside attack. The Times may have overlooked these divisions in a rush to publish the photo. “It is possible to tell the story of terror without splashing bloody images on your front page, whether in America, Europe, Asia, or Africa,” Mwaura added. “In fact, I believe publishing gory images aids the cause of terrorists, because their sympathizers are emboldened by those pictures.” 

The Times, acknowledging the volume of criticism it received for its choice of image, explained its decision in a statement posted on Twitter: “We want to be respectful,” editors wrote. “We also believe it is important to give our readers around the world a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this. This often includes showing pictures that are not sensationalized but that give a real sense of the terrible situation.” But which readers were served by the publication of an exploitative photograph? Not the local audience. Repeat exposure to negative typecasting only serves to reinforce it. When it comes to journalism, this needs to be scrutinized as an ethical shortcoming. 

Weeks after the Riverside attack, as Kenyans regrouped and tried to return to normalcy, the grisly photos remained hard to look at. No one needs them to remember what happened, nor to understand that terrorist attacks leave lasting damage. What’s more, they aren’t representative of a beautiful place, where resilient people cannot be reduced to one-dimensional iconography.

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Vanessa Okoth-Obbo is a freelance writer and reporter who focuses on pop culture. Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Pitchfork, MTV News, and the Wall Street Journal.