Johann van Tonder

Things you shouldn't see

2004-06-28 10:14

Cape Town - "I saw things that people were not meant to see," my girlfriend's cousin told her after witnessing the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

That got me thinking about the sense in sharing the video of the beheading of Nic Berg in Iraq, which was referred to in this column last week, with a journalism class.

The rationale was to create a simulated newsroom environment, where decisions on how to handle sensitive material are taken on an ongoing basis. What I was hoping for was an academic debate on the merits of broadcasting the video, informed by relevant media ethics frameworks and theories.

Gatekeeping is an integral part of photojournalism: the photographer decides how to frame an image and the exact instance at which to open the shutter. Then a photo editor helps to select the appropriate frames based on a different set of criteria. Once submitted to the editors, final judgement takes into account news value and commercial value.

It is in this area where journalists aim to maximise truth telling while minimising harm.

As a photojournalist formally operating in conflict zones for a significant part of my career, I have always tried to be very mindful of this mantra. Showing the Berg-video to the class last Tuesday, however, diverted my attention from the subjects of the photograph and their families to the ordinary media consumer.

Having warned the 20-odd postgraduate students in journalism about the brutality of the material, I quoted News24 colleague Bryan Porter's account of watching the five masked men cutting off the American's head. Three people opted not to watch the screening and left the classroom.

I made it clear to the class that I had no intention of viewing this either. Having been exposed to similarly horrific scenes first-hand, I had had enough of that, thank you very much.

With my back towards the screen, I sat watching the reaction of the remaining students instead while listening to the soundtrack of the victim's last desperate cries. One glimpse of the monitor in front of me revealed a hand grasping a severed head.

Horror and disbelief

The general body language revealed utmost disbelief and horror. Hands covered dropping jaws. Some covered their eyes or lay their heads down on their desks. One of my students nearest me bit her lip so hard that I could see the tell-tale marks in the darkened room. In the light reflected from the white overhead screen, I saw tears.

Afterwards the usual classroom-rustle was missing. It was the first time in my teaching career I had experienced such complete silence. Chilling, deathly silence.

It took a while to steer the ensuing discussion back to media ethics and clinical decision-making. People felt an overriding need to talk about their personal experience after sitting through the last two minutes of a human life. There were feelings of guilt, of being party to the killing. For someone who was 13 at the time of the Staggie-killing in Cape Town, it brought back those frontpage images.

One person had hoped that constant exposure to Hollywood-violence would have desensitised her enough to stomach this. Now she thought it had been a mistake to watch this.

Many of these wordsmiths could not find ways to describe their emotions.

One students was wondering why I didn't watch the video with them. After all, I couldn't possibly identify with what they were going through after this experience. I explained that I was a human being first, then a lecturer / photojournalist / editor. I wouldn't willingly subject myself to such gruesome scenes again.

Another student replied that this exercise would shape his future decisions for the rest of his career.

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is a real thing. What I saw in the making was a group of traumatised viewers.

I realised again: There are certain things that people are not meant to see.

Do you agree? Tell Johann what you think.

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer. He lectures 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.


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