Wednesday, September 24, 2014

“We have become Homo Documentis, man the recorder”


Lead story in today's Times of India that featured the photograph of a young, mentally unstable man cowering before a tiger moments before it mauled him to death. (On its website, the country's No. 1 English newspaper has helpfully provided a video link to the news item which played out on Times Now most of yesterday, proclaiming, apparently with glee: "Caught on camera: Youth mauled to death".)

The same photograph was also published on the front pages of other leading newspapers, such as The Hindu and The Indian Express.

Which brings me to EXHIBIT B, a perceptive piece in Time magazine about an unrelated event but related issue:

We Are a Camera: Life, Death and the Urge to Shoot
At tragic and mundane moments now, we reach for our cameras.

And EXHIBIT C, a thought-provoking question on the Poynter website:

Would you snap a picture or pull the man to safety?

Why won't Indian news outlets question the value of, and ethics involved in, publishing such photographs? Because life in India is cheap.
  • By the way, The Times of India is currently involved in an unsavoury tit-for-tat with Deepika Padukone. For the record, I am 100% in agreement with the views of senior journalist Prem Panicker and The Hindu's Radhika Santhanam, both of whom have launched a broadside against Bombay Times on their blogs. Why is The Times of India what it is today? This piece in the hallowed New Yorker magazine holds the clues: "Citizens Jain: Why India's newspaper industry is thriving".
This reaction came via e-mail from Commitscion Faye D'Souza (Class of 2004):

I couldn't unsee that video. It haunts me. 

I think by watching it, I felt like I was part of the group of people who just stood there and did nothing. I remember a discussion we had in class about the duty of press photographers in the Vietnam War, who had to choose between taking a photograph to highlight the issue for the world and thereby stop the war OR saving the child who was on fire.

I don't think the question is about ethics anymore. One, these are not journalists who are looking to highlight the issue. Two, because the all these videos were shot with the aim to entertain and stroke the human fancy for the morbid and the macabre.

After I uploaded a link to my post this morning, Commitscion Dipankar Paul (Class of 2009) and I had an interesting discussion on Facebook:
  • Dipankar Paul What could the onlookers have done? Jumped in and saved the man? Also, the tiger didn't maul the man to death as you say in your post -- as I wrote on another FB post.
  • Ramesh Prabhu Re: your post, Dipankar -- "This content is currently unavailable". Why is that?
  • Ramesh Prabhu In any case, the focus of my post is the fact that we seem to have become "Homo documentis", as the Time journalist put it.
  • Dipankar Paul As for the photo being "disturbing", I disagree. It's much like Kevin Carter's Vulture and the Child photo. There is no gore, but we all know how this is going to end. It's important to document human history.
  • Dipankar Paul Here it is: The tiger didn't maul the man to death. It displayed its protective instincts by dragging the man by the scruff of the neck and pulling him away from the commotion like it would do if its offspring were in danger. It just so happens humans don't have folds of skin along their neck, and the tiger inadvertently must have punctured a major artery.
    5 hrs · Like · 1
  • Ramesh Prabhu By the way, did you click on all the links I have provided in my post?
  • Dipankar Paul I have.
  • Dipankar Paul Homo documentis is just another name for Journalist (or reporter or photographer), isn't it?
  • Ramesh Prabhu Yes, and I think the point Time and Poynter are making is that we have all become "man the recorder". I do think we are right to be concerned.
  • Dipankar Paul The last few paragraphs in the Poynter piece are important. If you see the video of the tiger and the man, you can see that the big cat is curious and confused -- definitely not malicious. The man was in the enclosure for 10 minutes. Where were the guards? Where were the tranquilizer darts? This death could have been averted. Unfortunately, the focus is going to be on #KillerTiger and not the zoo's incompetence/inefficiency.
  • Ramesh Prabhu Here is a relevant paragraph from the Time article:

    "But most of the criticism over the photos has been directed, rightly, not at Abbasi but the Post editors who had plenty of time to decide
    whether the photo needed to be on their cover, and ran it anyway.

    "This wasn’t a gruesome war photo showing people a conflict they’d otherwise ignore; it didn’t shed light on any ongoing situation. Its only purpose was to say: this is what he looked like just before he died, and we have the picture."
    5 hrs · Like · 1
  • Dipankar Paul But, Sir, in this case, there was no way onlookers could have pulled the man to safety short of climbing down themselves. But that's like getting onto the tracks to push the man onto the platform while the train rushes towards you.
  • Ramesh Prabhu And from Poynter:

    "But in both of those cases, editors could argue the photos held significant journalistic purpose of informing the public of gross
    tragedies and holding the powerful accountable.

    "This photo doesn’t have any of those redeeming journalistic qualities. But it causes great harm, to the family of the man, to those of us who view it and to the community of New York. It is sensational and voyeuristic and nothing more.

    "When you publish or pass along photos of pending death without
    purpose, you might as well be posting a snuff film. There is no
    redeeming value."
    5 hrs · Like · 1
  • Dipankar Paul Re: ToI editors publishing the photo. After the Deepika Padukone incident, I'm sure they didn't think of creating awareness about the mismanagement at Delhi Zoo. So, in that case, it wasn't the right call.
  • Dipankar Paul But this photo CAN be used to inform, much like Ut's and Carter's.
  • Ramesh Prabhu I am concerned no one gave a thought to "But it causes great harm, to the family of the man..."
  • Dipankar Paul Ah, then we should stop publishing all death photos -- impending or not. Isn't the 'how' an important part of reportage? Photographic/videographic evidence, if nothing else, provides closure and leaves no doubt.
  • Ramesh Prabhu The concluding paragraph of my post, for what it is worth:

    Why won't Indian news outlets question the value of, and ethics involved in, publishing such photographs? Because life in India is cheap.
    5 hrs · Like · 1
  • Dipankar Paul There is great POTENTIAL value in publishing such photographs. If the intention is to inform and highlight incompetence, I'm all for it. But if the aim is titillation, eyeball-mongering and plain voyeurism, it's a shame. And today's ToI falls somewhere in the middle.
  • Ramesh Prabhu I'm very glad we had this debate, Dipankar. Thank you.
    5 hrs · Like · 1
  • Dipankar Paul Brings to mind an earlier post about euphemisms.
    5 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Vidya Nayak I am reminded of the Readers' Digest reporter, who had taken the photo of a grandfather who had inadvertently caused his grandchild's death. Years later, he said in an interview that he regretted having caused the family more pain. But at the time, all he had thought of was clicking the photo first and rushing it to the centre for publication!
  • Ann Thomas What an interesting debate/discussion...Thank you Ramesh Prabhu and Dipankar Paul!


And here are the comments of senior journalist Bala Murali Krishna (via e-mail):

Seriously, Ramesh, do you really expect Indian media to actually think on all these sensitive issues? If you recall, even Frontline from the Hindu group was guilty of publishing gory photos of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. If I remember right, it was a sellout issue.