What’s beyond the Westgate Mall photos?

By Camy Roch

Just something I happened to wonder few weeks ago, and that kept bothering me: who’s responsible for these, and why am I being shown them?

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On September 21 st, members of Islamist insurgent group Al Shabaab penetrated Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where they opened fire killing 67 and injuring 170. The attack, claimed by the Somalia-based cell of Al Qaida, was followed by 4 days siege and partial destruction of the shopping centre.

Dramatic photographs from inside the mall illustrating the violence of the action, lifeless bodies covered in blood and policemen intervention quickly spread online. I saw a couple of them with a colleague of mine, and one of the comments that came out was ‘Who the hell took those pictures?’ ‘Civilians with their smartphones’, my colleague said. Meeh… With all due respect to the increasing performances of phone photography , I don’t think so.

To be honest, those photographs are incredible. Horrific, yes, but still incredible. Frame, light, composition… They’re so perfect I wondered if they could be some kind of reconstruction. Cause how else could we get the illustration of a family hiding from gunmen? Of civilians hands up running for their lives down the stairwell? Of policemen in action hiding behind shattered windows?

And above all, since WHEN are we entitled to contemplate the inners of a massacre?

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Turned out theyweren’t  a sick reconstruction, but the work of war photographers who happened to be nearby. Amongst the most re-published were those of Reuters’ chief photographer for East Africa, Goran Tomasevic. He recounts here the first hours of the attack. New York Times’ staff photographer, Tyler Hicks, also managed to enter the attack. He speaks here.

Thing is, I don’t know why those pictures bothered me so much. Maybe it’s the contrast between such a familiar environment and a complete chaos that makes the good Western consumerist in me so disturbed. Or perhaps the ubiquity of a mall that first remained intact, Africasacountry pointed out: ‘In several photographs, mannequins stay upright, even though the window they are behind has been shattered by a bullet. Others show people using the stores to hide, but the coffee-shop counter behind which they are lying down still offers lids for coffee cups.’

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Following their publication online, NY Time’s photographer Hicks was addressed an open letter of critics, whose title is explicit enough: ‘Forget the ethics! What good does risk-taking photojournalism serve in a hostage massacre?’. ‘None!’ the author concluded, incidentally making a very good point: A hostage situation, or the siege of a mall, is NOT an ongoing conflict or war. And while photojournalism may clear out the fog of war and testify against committed atrocities, graphic dehumanizing clichés of a hostage situation DO NOT HELP. To which the critic adds: ‘in the last five US public shooting, we did not see pictures of the dead and injured victims’.

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Don’t get me wrong, far from me the idea to start a never-ending debate on what should and shouldn’t be published, photographed and broadcasted. But I still can’t help wondering. Why the hell are we illegitimately plunged in the middle of a police intervention and what does their publication in major big media outlets bring?

‘When specific visual frames dominate the narrative of a specific event, they indicate that the majority of the target audience would be more susceptible to come to congruent understandings of that event’, I read recently. So what kind of message do those pictures leave us with? Beside an increasing concern on the rise of terrorism in the African continent and the disastrous consequences of an attack ‘targeting specifically Non-Muslims’ according to media, not much, I’d say.

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