Sunday morning the world awoke to the horrific story of Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambiquan national who was killed in Johannesburg on Saturday in the xenophobic attacks that began in Kwazulu Natal. Along with the story by James Oatway and Beauregard Tromp were the gut wrenching photographs depicting the sequence of events that led to the death of Emmanuel. I wept as I looked at these images and the look of total horror on the face of a man who was going about his business but got attacked. As I read the narrative accompanying the images, I became deeply disturbed because it seemed to me that the narrator was the photographer and that he simply continued to take pictures as Emmanuel was attacked and as he lay on the ground in agony. The story and images are here.
Then this morning I watched a BBC interview in which James Oatway the photojournalist describes the events of that morning. I listened intently hoping that when he got to the part about going towards Emmanuel after he was attacked the first time, he would describe how he put his camera down and helped him to his feet. I was appalled when he stated very clearly that he got close, and started taking pictures. In the written narrative he asked Emmanuel if he knew why they were attacking him, meaning that he got close enough to be able to help him. I don’t know but I fail to understand how you ask a man who is in agony after being brutalized if he knows why they are attacking him and expect a response. What response is there? Why could this question not have waited until the man had been taken to safety or to hospital? Where is the humanity in continuing to take pictures as the injured man on the ground is further attacked by a different person with an Okapi knife? How is it possible to watch from behind the lens and not feel moved, at the very least, to attempt to rescue a fellow human being from harm? Was Emmanuel worth more to this journalist as a wounded victim of xenophobic violence than as an able bodied human being worth so much more to his family? Clearly the journalists were not in any grave danger because they were in close proximity to what happened and Oatway describes how the attackers moved away when they saw him approach Emmanuel. I am having an existential crisis right now because I am asking myself how James Oatway could insulate himself from the suffering of Emmanuel but still righteously criticize the reluctant bystanders who he asked for assistance to get him into the journalists’ car or the apathetic attitudes of the staff at the clinic and hospital where they eventually took him.
James Oatway and his partner failed Emmanuel, and they are part of the sequence of systemic and human failures that led to his murder. His first question was not to ask Emmanuel his name because it did not matter who this man was. Emmanuel like many others was just a story.
There are many images and videos that are circulating on social media, depicting the most gruesome of human atrocities. Videos and images of gang rape of women, child abuse, public beheadings and so on. Often we do not know who has taken these images but each time I come across them the first question in my mind is: what is the mind- set of the person who can film or photograph such despicable acts and not be moved to drop the camera or cell phone and stop the suffering? In some cases this might not be possible for safety reasons or the photographer is one of the perpetrators. But in the case of Emmanuel Sithole, the photographer is James Oatway and while I do not understand his mindset, I do know that he had an opportunity to possibly save Emmanuel’s life and he chose not to. He had the opportunity to restore some dignity to Emmanuel by considering how he might feel being photographed in his pain and confusion, and put his camera down to help him.
Perhaps it is our own greed for these images that enables a disconnection to the suffering of another, in those who capture them - where the cell phone or camera becomes an empathy-proof shield between the photographer/videographer and the subject. There is a market for them and one only needs to look and how many shares gory images get on social media sites. I do not need gory images to know the atrocities that are going on in the world. They do not cause me to act. Instead they haunt me and induce insomnia, paralysis and depression.
However the images of Emmanuel Sithole haunt me for an entirely different reason: knowledge that there was the smallest chance that he might have lived if they had not been too busy taking photographs. A picture may be worth a thousand words to some but it is definitely not worth the loss of a human life to many.
RIP Emmanuel Sithole