Johann van Tonder

Capturing the moment, or not?

2004-07-14 12:48

Many of you will have seen some permutation of the mass e-mail joke bouncing around where the narrator is a news photographer, on assignment, having to make a tough call.

Covering a river coming down in flood, you find yourself in a position to make a decision of possibly historical importance. You recognise Robert Mugabe, who is about to go down. With only split seconds to spare, you can make a single move. This could have serious repercussions. The decision?

Do I shoot his drowning in colour or black and white?

Jokes aside, one of my preferred discussions in photojournalism ethics classes centres on a hypothetical situation in which a photographer has to live with the consequences of a difficult decision.

A group of photographers, covering a public demonstration, is called aside by the police and asked to leave a scene based on intelligence that the photographers' presence would incite violence. Ignoring the authorities' request and the thought that he could provoke demonstrators, Photographer 'X' is the only one to stay behind and gets award-winning footage of the violent clashes that follow between police and the demonstrators.

Was his decision to stay put justified?

For South African journalists, this situation is less hypothetical. "Inciting violence" has become too convenient an excuse in the hope that police might be given some privacy. Just last week, reporters and photographers were asked to leave the scene of ongoing unrest at Diepsloot outside Johannesburg.
(Apartheid era tactics return.)

The reason? Their presence might stir more incidents as locals supposedly "acted" for the media. For the authorities, it appears, it is too far-fetched to believe that people who had just been told to relocate, against their will, might have been genuinely upset enough to make a stand, with or without "inciting" onlookers, notwithstanding the fact that the previous night had turned violent despite the lack of media presence.

Police eventually resorted to rather vague (and arguably incongruous) legislation, declaring the entire block a crime scene.

Photojournalists are the eyes of the public. It is not a mandate, but a responsibility. It demands of us to expose issues affecting the community as far as possible, even more so when asked by police, or anyone else, to turn your back on a sticky situation. Photographers who were assigned to the Diepsloot-story felt that police officials did not like the images of protesters being manhandled by the boys in blue.

Of course, acting as the eyes of the public does not give the photojournalist carte blanche. This responsibility has to be carried out in exactly that way, responsibly. The photographer ultimately works for the reader, the public, not the editor.

Stories should be reported truthfully and accurately, which includes being mindful of possibly influencing a scene by your mere presence. I can immediately think of a number of situations where I walked away from a potentially good picture in cases where I got the impression that people were acting for the camera.

The last time I chose to stay on a scene against "orders", however, I photographed an unarmed man, walking towards the police with his hands raised, asking them not to shoot. Police shot him in front of me. Had it not been for my images that day, conveying the truth of the incident to his family, would the authorities have admitted to this?

It is not always in the best interest of police to have the media around, but they, like photojournalists, have a responsibility towards the same public.

  • 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.

    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.

    Picture source: Halden Krog, Beeld

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