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Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Bystander Effect and Photojournalism

Trigger warning for violence on this post, including domestic violence.

Just before my nineteenth birthday, I got jumped by gang members.

This is simultaneously more and less thrilling than it sounds. I lived next door to a few of them; my only issue with them was the constant loud and late parties. But one Sunday afternoon they were itching for a fight, and I was the one with the shit luck of answering the door. I got dragged outside by my hair and as the kicking and punching sounded, my survival instincts kicked in, and I screamed my head off. I kept screaming as loudly and continuously as my lungs would let me; well aware that I was in a somewhat secluded courtyard and no one would be able to see me, but they might be able to hear me. My flatmates came to my rescue and got me back inside, although not before I’d lost most of my hair, and sustained two black eyes, a scratched cornea, a fractured cheekbone, and bruised ribs. I was lucky. It could have easily been so, so much worse.

The thing that still haunts me about the experience is not the beating itself. Those wounds heal, and the only real reminder I have of that now is the way I still tense up if someone touches my head. The thing I still think about is that there were two other flats on my property, with about fifteen residents between them. We were surrounded by houses. And not one person who didn’t live with me came over, or rang the police. If I’d been home alone, I could have been killed.

Just before Christmas my partner and I went outside around 11pm on a Saturday night for some fresh air, just because it was stifling hot in our apartment. We live in an apartment building in the middle of the Wellington CBD; what we gain in convenience, we lose in the noise of buses and drunk partygoers hollering outside our window in the wee small hours. Across the street, there were two men and a woman, and a lot of shouting. At first we thought it was probably just drunken loudness; it wasn’t until one of the guys began slamming the other into the window behind him that we realised it was nothing of the sort. I rang 111 while my partner grabbed a supermarket security guard, who went over to try and defuse the situation. Plenty of people walked past us both without even glancing over the road.

The Bystander Effect has been widely studied. In a nutshell, the more people who witness something, the less likely it is that any one of them will take action.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, because of a link that came up on my Facebook feed. There is a serious trigger warning for domestic violence on this, but if you have the spoons, this series, “Shane and Maggie”, is a series of images by photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz that depict an incident of domestic violence. In the photographer’s own words:

I had been photographing a couple, Shane and Maggie, since September. I had originally intended the story to center on their struggles trying to make ends meet, as Shane has a lengthy criminal record that has prevented him from obtaining steady employment. One night, Shane and Maggie got into a fight, and Shane began to physically abuse Maggie, slamming her up against walls and choking her in front of her two-year-old daughter, Memphis. He had taken our cellular phones, so I reached into his pocket and steal my phone back when he was distracted. I handed my phone to another adult who was in the house,and instructed them to call the police. I then continued to document the abuse. In that moment, my instincts as a photojournalist kicked in. I knew I had to stay with the story and document it in all of its ugly truth. I have continued to follow Maggie since the abuse, and am producing a multimedia piece as well as a still series.

There has long been discussion about photojournalists in war zones and areas of abject famine; photojournalists who have ended up taking their own lives, due in at least some part to the intense criticism levelled at them for taking images rather than helping. These criticisms are valid, but at the same time, I think I can understand why you would need to learn how to switch off your emotions somewhat if you were constantly faced with the worst of human suffering. I can empathise with that, even if I don’t agree with it.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is not in a war zone. She is not facing horrors most of us could hardly imagine and will never experience, day in and day out. She is a photographer who, when faced with a young woman being choked and beaten in front of her two-year-old daughter, did not freeze in fear. She had the presence of mind to steal back her cell phone—and then hand it to someone else to call the police so that she could continue to take photos of the event.

That is a conscious decision.

Can I say how I would have acted or reacted in the same situation? Probably not. Can I sympathise with a woman who is not prepared to throw herself into the middle of a violent situation? Fuck yes, I can. But the concept of someone standing there taking photos while a woman is choked and beaten, of letting a child stand there and watch this take place, makes me sick to my stomach.

If it was anyone but a photojournalist, there would be an uproar. If I witnessed an assault on the street and, instead of intervening or calling the police, whipped out my iPhone and got snap-happy, I would (rightly) be castigated for it. But because these pictures were taken by a photojournalist, instead, it is seen as perfectly acceptable to make a project out of it.

That shit just doesn’t fly with me, sorry.

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Posted by on January 12, 2013 in Domestic violence, Media, Personal

 

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