Johann van Tonder

Fascinated with the accused

2004-10-07 11:52

Today, the frontpage photograph of newspapers all over the country show a man whose face is deliberately hidden in his clothing.

The fascination with images of accused in criminal cases is entertaining. What keeps me looking at the photograph of a guy with a checked shirt pulled over his head? What goes through your mind as you stare at it?

For some people, the first thought seems to be about the potential violation of the human rights of the subject.

In a recent column, newspaper ombudsman George Claassen discussed the complaints he received about a photograph of a woman who had just been convicted of murder. "Prisoners", one reader charged, "have certain rights".

Amidst reality TV-shows court like Curtis Court and Judge Judy, e.tv is challenging regulations preventing them from televising the Schabir Shaik-trial. They want to bring us the court room action (or lack thereof) live.

Not a good idea, says Professor Anton Harber of Wits University. Referring to the American OJ Simpson case, he warned Cape Talk listeners that the risk of turning the judicial process into a media circus, is too real.

An online poll on the issue, conducted by Afrikaans daily Die Burger, indicated that over 80% of readers supported live coverage of the trial.

That debate and its merits aside, the poll confirms that news consumers have a strong interest in court reporting. Sure, e.tv has seen the opportunity for a ratings spike, and weighing up public interest against all the other factors is not an easy task.

As picture editor, court photographs would be on the checklist I'd want to tick off at the end of the news day to ensure a balanced photo offer for the next day's publication.

Not that I personally ever really enjoyed doing assignments at court. On more than one occasion, I have been beaten up by the families of accused.

As readers, we want to see who these people are. But is our right to that information heavier than the right of the individual to some privacy or protection?

At which point is our curiosity or voyeurism outweighed by the effect of photographs on the family of the accused? If criminals forfeit these rights, what about those not convicted yet?

A seasoned reporter relates how he was covering the trial of two teenagers involved in a murder case. He was taking pictures of the boys emerging from court (with the intention to block out their faces later) when the mother of one scumbag came up to him, punched him and tried to prevent him from taking any more pictures.

"I find what you're doing very immoral," she told the amazed photographer.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

    Note: The second photo featured in this column was taken by Johann shortly before the man in the photo punched him in the face.

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