Photojournalist Ketevan Kardava was on her way to Geneva on assignment when the twin blasts at the Brussels international airport ripped through the terminal. Kardava's first instinct, she would later say, was to look down at her legs to see if they were still there.
"Everyone was covered in blood. They lost their legs. All of them,” the special correspondent for the Georgian Public Broadcaster network said. "I kept looking to see my legs. With my hands, I wanted to feel them."
The 36-year-old Georgia native, evidently still in shock, took out her camera and began documenting what she saw around her, screaming for help at the same time. One of the first photos she took, that of the Indian flight attendant Nidhi Chaphekar, has become the defining image of the Brussels terror attack. It has also sparked off a debate about the dignity and choice of victims trapped in a situation like this.
Nidhi Chaphekar was photographed seconds after the twin blasts at the Brussels airport on 22 March, 2016.
It is bad enough that you are grievously injured. Must you also deal with your extreme helplessness and vulnerability being splashed on front pages across the world? Does an unwitting participant in a public event surrender their agency in how they are represented?
Contributing editor Sandip Roy weighed in on the issue this week, arguing that with a picture like this, the media strips a victim in such a circumstance of her dignity. A "fundamental decency" is lacking in such situations, he argued.
I'm not persuaded.
I looked hard at the photograph, trying to understand what was "indecent" about it. The picture captures the raw horror and brutality of the attack. Was a blast victim, sprawled over a couple of chairs, her leg at an odd angle and one shoe missing, supposed to look some other way for her to be photographed? Was the force of the highly-unstable hydrogen peroxide-based explosives not supposed to burn her clothes away, leaving just scraps of the smart and familiar long yellow coat of Jet Airways staff? The victim's vulnerability represents the random vulnerability of all of us.
The Telegraph quotes Chaphekar's local security guard saying it was "not nice to see Madam's picture in the morning papers with her clothes burnt and her undergarments showing."
It was certainly not nice. She had just survived a terror attack and that is precisely why it was so important for Kardava to take that photo. It is an unsettling image, but just because it captures a mother of two whose clothes have been burnt to shreds cannot be a reason for not taking the photo, and for not publishing it. Terror has a nasty way of not caring about these things.
To argue that she "looked" indecent is to subscribe to a familiar form of censorship.
She had just narrowly escaped dying in a terrorist blast, and her trauma captured the imagination of millions across the world and brought the tragedy home to them. Isn't that what a good news photograph is supposed to do?
To argue that she "looked" indecent is to subscribe to a familiar form of censorship — that a woman seen in her undergarments is obscene, and that (in this context), Chaphekar's portrait in her state of disarray brings shame to her, as she is responsible for how she is seen in public. Or that it was somehow Kardava's job to avert gaze from Chaphekar's appearance to accommodate this idea of "decency".
What Kardava Really Did
Kardava, in repeated interviews since the incident, has said that she picked up her camera on instinct, which is a common reaction most journalists would identify with, when in the middle of tragedy.
In fact, she has explained how she tried to get medical help for the people around her, many of whom had been injured badly. All the time, she was even bracing for a third explosion, which thankfully never came. Kardava was not on assignment—she had not been rushed to the spot following the accident, but was a victim like everyone else around her.
"What do you do in this situation if you’re a journalist? Help? Ask doctor to come? Or take a photo?” she told USA Today in an emotional interview. "In that very moment, I realized that to show the world what was happening in this moment of terror, a photo was more important."
Even though her first reaction was to take shelter and cry inside a passport photo booth, she went on to take several photos of the injured at the airport, arrival of aid volunteers, herself, and former Belgium basketball player Sebastien Bellin (who she couldn't identify at the time she took the photo).
A woman and children sit and mourn for the victims of the bombings at the Place de la Bourse in the center of Brussels a day after the attacks.
She described how it was extremely difficult for her to leave behind the people she photographed, even as Belgium defence forces asked her to escape. When she posted the photo of Chaphekar on Facebook, she captioned it: "Explosion... Help us." It was a human response to the violence she witnessed around her that day.
Effect On Chaphekar's Family
Far from blaming Kardava for taking the photograph, Chaphekar's family couldn't contain their relief.
"We were searching through the Internet to try and get details of the blasts when we saw the pics," her brother-in-law Nilesh Chaphekar told The Associated Press. "The first reaction was 'she's alive. By God's grace she is alive.'"
The photograph helped draw attention on Chaphekar's condition, and the family has received constant updates on her medical condition, instead of living in fear and uncertainty. They may have come to know of her condition eventually, but nowhere as fast if the photograph had never been taken.
Latest reports indicate that the 40-year-old mother of two is now stable and under sedation, and is recovering from 15 percent burns on her body and a fractured leg.
Our Job As Journalists
Kardava's predicament is an all too-familiar one. Photographer Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc, or the "Napalm Girl", during the war in Vietnam showed a naked girl running with other kids, crying. He took the photo, and then grabbed the girl and took her to the nearest doctor. Kevin Carter, who took the prize-winning image of a vulture watching a starving child in southern Sudan in March 1993 argued that the child wasn't in immediate danger as there were aid workers in the vicinity, helping them.
"The first reaction was 'she's alive. By God's grace she is alive.'"
But where do we draw the line between our job as journalists and duty as human beings? I think that's purely personal.
Another journalist in Kardava's place may have ran to help others — in whatever way they deemed fit. The world would have lost some first images from the attack, a place that Kardava was uniquely positioned in because of her own situation as a victim in the terrorist blast. Would that have made them a lesser journalist? Does taking the photo make Kardava a lesser human? My answer to both is an emphatic "no".
Are we as journalists to look the other way, find someone more "put together" before taking a photo? Does our job as chroniclers of our times make it "right" to decide on one instinct over another?
Kardava wasn't "just doing her job" or "being insensitive". There are no black and white answers to what she chose to do at the moment of utter shock, seconds after two bombs had gone off less than a meter from her. What she chose to do was her own personal reaction to tragedy at that particular instant.
And she shouldn't have to apologise for that.
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