“Outrageous and exploitative,” tweeted a friend, himself a photographer, this morning as he looked at the picture that has become the face of the Brussels blast.
Jet Airways stewardess Nidhi Chaphekar’s picture was everywhere from the New York Times to the Guardian to Indian newspapers to a Twitter hashtag #PrayFor Nidhi.
It had become as The Guardian calls it “the photograph that has come to define the horrors of the Brussels attack.” When it was taken no one knew who she was. She was a scared, shocked woman with blood trickling down her face, her foot injured, her clothes torn from the blast, sitting at Zaventem airport.
Until my friend called it “exploitative” I had seen it but not really looked at it. I was used to the idea that every great tragedy now needs its defining image.
A young boy lying face down and lifeless on that beach brought home the desperation of the Syrian refugee crisis like nothing else. Decades before him, in 1972 , the little girl running in naked agony from a napalm strike, her arms outstretched, her clothes ripped off, became the symbol of the Vietnam War.
Now it was Nidhi Chaphekar’s turn because she happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I had taken that for granted in a way.
And Ketevan Kardava, special correspondent of the Georgian Public Broadcaster network happened to be right there with her camera. “As a journalist it was my duty to take these photos and show the world what was going on,” she tells The Guardian.
That “world” she is referring to also includes Chaphekar’s friends, family and neighbours. "We often supply groceries to them, but had not seen Nidhi madam till today," said Vaishnavi, a salesgirl at OneStop to The Telegraph. “Hardly anyone here knew till this morning that the face of the Brussels blast victims is a resident of our society,” said Lalit Babu, the chief security guard at their building complex.
“It was not nice to see Madam’s picture in the morning papers with her clothes burned and her undergarments showing. The least they could have done is cover her.”
The security guard’s simple comment gives me pause. What he says expresses a very ordinary human trait that is all too often missing in these circumstances – fundamental decency.
Kardava is doing what is her job, to document a tragedy, possibly at risk to her own life. The media is doing what they think is their job – finding an image that drives home that tragedy. The only person who has no choice in this is the person in the photo splashed around the world.
At a time like this there is no question of a model release form. When the media choose that particular image they are also choosing very consciously to strip Nidhi Chaphekar of her own dignity, at a moment when she is at her most vulnerable.
We have wrestled with the ethics of documenting a moment like this for a long time. Nick Ut, the Los Angeles-based photojournalist who took that Pulitzer-winning image of the naked Kim Phuc fleeing the napalm strike, put the screaming youngster in his van and took her to a hospital before filing his photographs in the Saigon bureau.
As Ut furiously snapped photographs, a young girl runs toward him, arms outstretched, eyes clenched in pain, clothes burned off by napalm.
She still calls him Uncle Ut in gratitude. That photograph might have helped changed her future as well. Now settled in Canada, she has been able to go to Miami to see a dermatologist who specializes in laser treatments for burn patients.
When Dorothea Lange took the famous picture of the destitute migrant mother, the woman in the photograph, Florence Thompson, complained while Lange became famous, she remained poor.
Yet when she suffered a stroke, it was thanks to that image, that people around the US raised funds not for Thompson as much as for the woman who had become what the Los Angeles Times called the symbol of the Great Depression.
Those are all “happy” (if one can even use that word in this context) outcomes of tragic stories, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that was the intent. These stories were not about Kim Phuc or Florence Thompson just as this story is not about Nidhi Chaphekar.
She is only being used as an illustration. She is, for most of the media running her image, an unknown terrified, blood-stained woman and her frazzled state is precisely the message the media is trying to convey. She is only as important as her dishabille.
More than the person taking the image the fact that so many media outlets chose that particular image for their front pages shows that we do not really think about exploitation at this level.
When the media choose that particular image they are also choosing very consciously to strip Nidhi Chaphekar of her own dignity, at a moment when she is at her most vulnerable.
Almost everything is fair game when it comes to telling a story or rather getting more eyeballs for a story. We may balk at an image that is too explicitly gruesome but are blind to the many other ways we can exploit the plight of people trapped in a terrible tragedy. In an age where thanks to smartphones and social media we can all be publishers almost instantly, that blindness will only keep growing.
This, in the end, is a story both about the power of an image as well as ultimately its limitation. As Richard Woodward writes in ArtNews, “Photography is superbly equipped to describe the results of events but is inarticulate or misleading when it comes to explaining their causes.”
When Ut was covering the Vietnam war it was truly far away for readers in the US. Nothing is that far anymore. An image can become ubiquitous with a speed that was was never possible before.
Yet we wear that responsibility lightly, clicking and sharing promiscuously. The sheer proliferation of the image lets us all off the hook. We do not have to grapple with the ethics of exploitation because everyone else is sharing it anyway.
Back in 1977, when viral was still about disease and a scary word and not a desirable state, Susan Sontag had warned in her book On Photography “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetise.” That numbing can be the dead end of this unthinking exploitation.
At one point Aylan Kurdi’s aunt asked the world to stop using that picture of the drowned toddler. She wanted the world to remember him smiling. By then it was too late. Kurdi had become frozen,facedown and dead.
By then that image had become a meme, a cartoon, even an Ai Wei Wei art project. Kurdi was dead but Chaphekar is alive and will have to live with the consequences of the decisions that helped that image of her go viral. By then, the media will have moved on to another face for another story.
But that image of her will live on and on, defining her to strangers and neighbours and the grocery delivery person, whether she likes it or not.
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