Defend Truth


Human dignity is no match for press freedom


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

They say a picture says a thousand words, and recently I might have been convinced that at least half that word-count tells us about the photographer.

The 14 June 2010 edition of Time magazine features the story of a young mother in Sierra Leone who dies during child birth. The story is told in pictures, and without a doubt carries all the shock and awe that should enrage us about such deaths in the 21st century.

There is a picture of young Sessay sitting on a rural hospital bed, nude and visibly distraught, after giving birth to the first twin. There are pictures of blood, of anguish, and finally there is one of the lifeless body of 18-year-old Sessay who doesn’t survive almost two days giving birth to twins. All is exposed and creates the kind of hype and award-winning extravaganza known only to the media.

But one must wonder if it is acceptable to photograph and publicise a woman at her most vulnerable in this way. What did these pictures achieve that a good writer wouldn’t have communicated?

No doubt, the story is relevant, and it reflects a modern-day outrage – women still die during child birth. But is it necessary that we see Sessay in this way to draw the required amount of outrage that should drive us to do better?

To me it suggests that either we have become so uncaring as a species that we must be shocked by horrendous pictures of our world, or, in the name of freedom of the press, it has become acceptable to violate the privacy, dignity and humanity of others – depending on who they are, of course.

I’m reminded of another picture taken last year during what we now know as the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. One local daily newspaper published a picture on its front page of a kneeling man on fire. What caused a stir, to my surprise, was a policeman standing beside the suffering man seeming to be smiling as he looked on. No one thought to imagine what damage that picture would do to those people who would consider the humanity of a man burning to death. Imagine how the family and friends of that man must have felt, seeing visual evidence of the most unimaginable suffering visited on their loved one.

One wouldn’t dare ask why the first instinct of the photographer wasn’t to help put out the fire. Perhaps he wanted to take the picture first, and then put out the fire.

But we live in a world where it is acceptable that vulnerable human beings be paraded in public for the sake of reporting. Their dignity and that of their loved ones doesn’t matter when it stands in parallel to a good story and a journalist’s right to freedom of expression, and perhaps, the public’s right to know.

The writer of the Time story, Alice Park, says, “The tragedy, however, lies not just in these deaths, but in the fact that they are nearly always preventable”.

But would it be farfetched to wonder if she could have contributed to the “prevention” in that instance?

No doubt, Park has done a good thing by highlighting this kind of tragedy. It raises the possibility that the world will be so disturbed that it will be moved to action, and thus prevent what became the fate of Sessay, and of many other poor women throughout the world.

But “poor” is the operative word here. For us in more affluent circles, our names, much less pictures, are protected by law in situations such as Sessay’s. It is unimaginable that a woman from this side of the fence would have been seen as Sessay was pictured – nude, with her head hanging over the hospital bed, in plain agony and fear, during the final moments of her life.

There is freedom of the press, and there is each human’s right to dignity and privacy. Sometimes, they do no co-exist. As far as I can see, that story and those pictures perpetuate exactly what it purports to address – the indignity suffered by those who happen to be poor and disempowered.


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