The man, shot, had been agonizing on the ground, his face full of blood, with the commotion still going on around him. The photojournalist had been shooting all night, trying to make sense of the events as they were unfolding, trying to keep composure as chaos was unfolding around her. The door of the fire engine nearby opened, letting a ray of its harsh white light fall on the sidewalk, illuminating enough of the scene for the photographer to take a picture. And she moved on, instinctively propelled by the need to see more, to photograph what would become the worst terrorist attack in France’s history.
The photo, amongst many others, was later sent to her photo agency who then proceeded in offering it to a variety of publications. One French magazine decided to run it along other pictures of the same night. The man in the photo passed away 24 hours after the photo was taken and before it was published.
A month later, the photographer received a notice that she had broken the Guigou law and is being sued by the family of the victim to the tune of $49,000 .The Guigou law, one of the harshest “right to privacy law” in the world, forbids, amongst other rules, the publication of photographs of survivors of violent crimes without their permission.
Those are the elements of the story. Here are the implications:
Throughout its history, photojournalism has been about taking pictures of victims. From Capa’s Spanish soldier hit by a bullet, Margaret Bourke White’s victims of concentration camps, to the killing fields of Vietnam, the individuals jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11 or the countless swept away by the tsunami of 2004, and unfortunately, so many others, it has always been a primary function of photojournalism to document history via its victims. Imagine our world without those pictures and countless others, some so strong that they ultimately change the course of history.
Victims are part of the story, if not the whole story. We more strongly empathize to pain and suffering. It’s our human nature. In order to make viewers relive the impact of an event, a photojournalist always has, and always will, photograph victims, as nothing visually explains better what they are witnessing. It’s in the DNA of photojournalism.
Up to now, it’s never been an issue. At least legally. As millions grew up seeing countless photographs of horrific crimes committed around the world, whether caused by Nature or the evil of man, no one seized a court of law in retaliation for showing what had happened except those who were trying to hide it. Until now.
What has changed ?
It’s not photojournalism that has changed, nor is it publishing. They both continue on a path established long ago, leaving to the individual reader the choice to decide if they want to see the photograph or not: No one is ever forced to purchase a magazine or open their TV ( or browser). What has changed is our society. What was acceptable and common in the last century has become intolerable today, and punishable by law. Why ? Do we really need the state to dictate what is and what isn’t an acceptable photograph? Are we better off if we never see images of victims ? Who are we protecting ?
In this particular case, the claim is that dignity of the deceased is being degraded. But quite frankly, who in their right mind would think poorly of that person? In fact, it is more pity, pain, empathy that is felt.And a frustrated urge to help.
Punishing the witness
The photographer is not the one who degraded the individual, the terrorists did. If anyone is guilty here, it is those who entered the concert hall where he was enjoying his favorite band and shot people randomly. If anything can be judged, it is the cold murderous actions of a few that took the life of a man who wanted nothing more than listen to music with his friends. Not the photographer who merely documented what happened. Punishing the person who documented what others did is not protecting the victim. It is sheltering the assassins by hiding their actions. The French law is punishing the witness, not the perpetrator.
Let push the absurdity of this law to its limits. Let’s say that in a near future, photojournalists are no longer allowed to take pictures of victims. A terrorist attack like Paris would be only documented by images taken the next day of broken glass and tables turned over. And a number : 130. No one who wasn’t present could ever imagine the horror. Ever. It would just seem like a bad day in Paris and we would move on with our lives, unbothered. Earthquakes, wars, famines would be small blimps on our radars as we would happily enjoy each other selfies. Dictators would easily pursue their demonic agendas, confident that not one would ever see the consequences of their destructive politics.
The pursuit of Justice
Sure pictures of victims are disturbing and yes, they do not portray individuals in their best moments. But they are a reality that we cannot and should not hide because they are the strongest path to understanding. Without photos of victims, there would be no outrage of the living and the pursuit justice.
Photojournalism has always navigated between the light of truth and the shadows of ethics. How far to go, how much to show to convey reality while respecting those entangled in it? But a huge part of being victimized is how one is suddenly stripped of the right to live, the right to choose and keep one’s human dignity. By photographing their horrific injustice, photojournalists gives them a voice.
Our society, in its sometimes absurd efforts to shield us from harm, is instead shielding us from truth. By restricting our ability to understand, it is taking us into a world of uninvolved citizens, where crime and injustice will cease to matter and be persecuted. By letting photojournalists be sued for doing their jobs, we close the door to any chance of making this a better world.
and just think, it was World Press Freedom Day just a few days ago…
Photo by Anne ღ End of a chapter..