Commoditising tragedy?

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Media Practice | 26/03/2016
The picture of the Jet Airways employee has gone viral but what about her privacy and how the picture was used?
GEETA SESHU expresses her doubts


The photograph of a bloodied Jet Airways employee at Brussels airport has gone viral, sparking an intense discussion on her privacy and the media’s responsibility during coverage of a disaster or tragedy.

By this time, everyone following the Brussels airport bomb blast has seen the photograph of the Jet Airways employee and is well aware of her identity. She is a resident of Mumbai and perhaps that was the primary consideration for the tabloid Mumbai Mirror to publish the photograph on its front page. The newspaper preferred to use the picture of this survivor instead of that of Belgian basketball player Sebastien Bellin, who was thrown at least 20 metres in the air and injured his leg.

But the way it was used - as a banner photograph that occupied more than half the front page of the newspaper, without any accompanying report and above an advertisement - was highly questionable. The newspaper decided to publish the picture without pixellating it or at least those portions of the photograph that showed the survivor’s yellow Jet Airways uniform stripped off and her undergarments exposed. Of course, it is possible that pixellating portions of a photograph in fact draw more attention to the ‘problem’ areas and increase viewer curiosity. But editors do need to take decisions on the sensational versus the dignified.

There is no doubt that the photograph of her dazed face was riveting. So does an untouched and undoctored photograph bring home a tragedy more starkly? Or, more pertinent to the Mumbai Mirror’s treatment of the blown-up picture - when does media coverage of victims and survivors become intrusive and commodified? No easy answers here.

Reacting to the use/misuse of the photograph, actor Gul Panang tweeted a request to the media to respect the privacy of those affected by the blasts. Others have worried at the impact that photos which go viral have on families of the victims. In this instance, the media have already reached the building society where the Jet Airways employee stayed, interviewed the security guard (an aside: security guards appear to be a favourite for journalists, rivaling only taxi drivers, for their quotes).

For the photographer who clicked the photo, Ketevan Kardava, a special correspondent for the Georgian Public Broadcaster network, there hardly seemed any reaction time. On her way for an assignment, she escaped the blast and began shooting when she realized she was unhurt, an act that will only win her accolades from fellow journalists. She has been quoted as saying she had no idea the picture would become so famous. As with disaster visuals, the issue really is how media outlets reproduce the photographs she took, apart from the life they take on afterwards on social media.

Pictures do tell a thousand words but they also live beyond the moment they capture and if they distort the lives of those they arrest in one frame, it is time we debated more rigorously our own role in determining how we must use their pictures. The media does publish photographs of the dead but when it publishes pictures of survivors, we do need to ask whether we should adopt a different sensibility.

For us in India, there are lessons we could have learnt, especially from what is now called the iconic photograph of a tear-stricken Qutubuddin Ansari, a tailor from Ahmedabad, hands folded in a plea, which became what print and broadcast news media termed the ‘face of the Gujarat riots’ of 2002. The aftermath of the picture, and Ansari’s life, is a tale worth remembering.

Widely circulated, the photograph resulted in instant recognition for Ansari, forcing him to re-locate to Kolkata, where CPI (M) leader Mohammed Salim helped him to set up a tailoring shop. The latter, in turn, used Ansari’s picture extensively during his parliamentary campaign against the Trinamool Congress candidate Ajit Panja, winning his seat in the bargain.

Unable to settle down in Kolkata, Ansari returned to Ahmedabad but found he was recognized everywhere he went and that his photograph was being used by all factions. Ansari was shocked and disturbed that his photograph was used in an email sent out by the Indian Mujahideen after the 2008 bomb blasts in Delhi. Later, when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi launched his “sadbhavna” (harmony) rallies, Ansari was asked to participate but refused.

Ansari repeatedly told the media and anyone who cared to listen to ‘leave him alone’.  He finally wrote to the Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad, on June 9, 2011 that he was living peacefully in Ahmedabad and that the police should restrain the media from using his photograph.

The complaint said: “On 28 February 2002, at around 3:00 pm, a mob attacked the building in which I was residing. In the nick of time police arrived and saved us. During the whole episode - my photograph with folded hands, terror reflecting in my eyes and begging for mercy was captured by some media person, which got wide publicity and was used by media, NGO & others as a face of 2002 riots. Various national and international NGOs have put my said photographs on their websites using it for publicity and donations in the name of helping riot-affected people.”

Should the photographer have taken the picture that overturned the life of a young tailor and forever embedded his identity in the collective memory in that split second as a tearful and pleading victim? The photographer who took the picture, Arko Datta, doesn’t regret taking the picture though he did feel sorry for the difficulties it caused for Ansari. In an interview a decade later, he said he was only doing his job but the problem was how everyone reacted to the picture he took.

In the coverage of the Brussels bomb blast, there have been other stories, equally sensitive and heart-rending. A report on The Telegraph is a case in point and another, of David Dixon, a UK victim who died in the tragedy, taken from his Twitter page, is sensitive in pixelating the companion’s face to protect the identity of the companion.

The media plays a vital role in shining a much-needed spotlight on tragedy or conflict and then transmitting it to a larger world. However, there is a need for serious introspection on issues like consent while reporting disasters or tragedies. Can an increasingly commoditised media strike the fine balance?



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More