Johann van Tonder

Don't shoot the messenger

2005-01-14 12:10
<b>'That' photo. (Die Burger)</b>

'That' photo. (Die Burger)

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This week, I had the opportunity to observe someone view THAT photograph for the first time since it was published just after Christmas.

She asked me for a copy of the newspaper bearing "that photograph" on the front cover, as she had been out of the country when it first appeared. Still raging, the debate that followed didn't escape her and she wanted to see for herself what the fuss was all about.

At first glance, she gasped in disbelieve. "Geeeeee." For the next couple of minutes she just stared at it. Then, after a while, there were observations about how the bodies were all bloated and audible thoughts about how it came to be that they were mostly undressed.

How peculiar it was that all the victims' arms lay stretched out next to their dead bodies. "It must be the effect of floating around before being dumped on the beach.

"It certainly wasn't just a little boat accident," she said, her nose almost touching the picture.

Exactly the point that Dr George Claassen, ombudsman of Die Burger, makes when he explains the decision to use this horrific picture of the tsunami aftermath so prominently: "The instinct to protect readers and viewers (against traumatic news images) may never override the instinct to inform."

Despite the overwhelming readers' vote on in favour of publishing the photograph, doing so released a flood of letters from readers, scratching the bottom of the surface to come up with reasons why the photograph should never have run.

'Words don't do justice'

"People have the right to die with dignity," a doctor charged. Do you think these people went with dignity, Doc? Do you think the coverage made any difference to how they died?

Many letters of criticism describe detail that I missed even after studying an enlargement of the photograph. I would have hoped that you'd get the point when you choose to look at a photograph with that much intent.

Something really tragic happened. Holiday-makers were killed on a beach. Over Christmas. Naked, bloated bodies were strewn across a disfigured landscape, smelling of death.

Words don't do justice to this tragedy. It wasn't just some accident somewhere far from here. If you saw the shocking footage, you'd know that.

It is inevitably that seeing something like that could stir up strong emotions. One response might be anger.

For some things in life, however, there is no-one to blame.

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