You can’t hide behind a camera phone

martin-luther-king-jr-leader-we-will-have-to-repent-in-thisI saw Joel Sartore from National Geographic Live talk about his photography on the weekend. One of the things we kept emphasizing was that he wasn’t there to draw conclusions or think for his audience – people could draw their own conclusions from the photos he takes. That’s a similar view to that taken by photo-journalists the world round – they are there to report, they can’t intervene, “Do not get involved with the news.” But I wonder if that view applies to everyday people when they see something wrong and whip out their iPhone to record it and post on Facebook or YouTube?

It’s easy to find a context for that thought. Just look at the racist abuse on buses and trains that people have posted. So, someone is on a bus or train and they see someone else hurling racist abuse at people: They don’t intervene, they don’t say anything, they just record the event and post it somewhere for the world to marvel at. But these people are not photo-journalists, they can’t hide behind a professional veneer. Isn’t the right thing to do to actually say something, to stand up and be counted rather than just sit and take photos?

When you see something happening and start to film it, does that put a barrier between you and the events? You can safely sit behind the camera feeling not directly involved? Or perhaps it makes the photographer feel they are doing something, that by filming and posting to social media they are making a comment or a stand that will help others in another time? It is that rationalization that works for the professional photo-journalist. For a bystander though, I’m not convinced that alone is the ethical response. You are, in effect, standing up after the fact and saying in shocked tones “That was terrible wasn’t it!?” while at the time you tacitly condoned what was going on by not doing anything about it.

Now I understand there are times when no one wants to get in the face of an aggressive drunk, when discretion is absolutely the best part of valour. But when you look at these videos the people involved are generally verbally aggressive but not terribly threatening. What it often takes is just one person to say something and that emboldens others; so the first person to stand up and be counted is rarely alone for long. In any case, though, I’m not really talking here about what’s the brave thing to do, but what’s the right thing to do.

There are certainly times when videoing something is both the brave and the right thing to do. They are when the very act of videoing is the statement – for example, people videoing police actions at a protest. That’s a materially different situation from the racism on the bus situation.

The person who gets over-looked in the video of the person hurling racial epithets on a bus or train is the victim. We look at the video and wince to think we live in a country where this sort of thing occurs. We shake our heads and comment that the person ought to have been thrown off the bus, ought to have been charged. But there’s not a single comment focusing on the victim and how they must have felt sitting on a bus with one person hurling abuse and thirty other people sitting watching in silence or filming their humiliation. Not a word spoken in their defense and their humiliation posted for the world to see.

I would argue the ethical thing to do, the right thing to do, if you see someone verbally abusing someone is to say something. That’s the brave and the right way to deal with the situation – the path we’d all like to think we’d take. Taking photos should be very much a secondary consideration. You are there, you are part of what’s happening – you can’t hide behind your iPhone. And posting a video is not speaking out.

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