A sad, horrific thing happened on Tuesday, January 15th. Armed gunmen launched an attack on an office complex that included a popular upscale hotel, Dusit, in Nairobi, Kenya. I was one of many Kenyans who took to Twitter to find out exactly what was unfolding as it happened. At first, we wondered if it had been some construction accident that had triggered an explosion. Then maybe it was some sort of large scale bank robbery. Finally, we began to acknowledge that it could only be a terrorist attack. ‘Not again’, some of us whispered to each other, ‘surely not again’.
In 2013, the popular shopping mall Westgate, not far from Dusit, was similarly attacked by terrorists and 67 people were shot and killed. In 2015, a horrific attack occurred in Northern Kenya at Garissa University where a mind-blowing 148 people, mostly students, were murdered. Kenya’s foreign policy, often encouraged by the various western powers that be, have often left its citizens vulnerable to threats that the police force may not be equipped to handle.
But that’s not the story here today. The story is about what continued to happen on Twitter, as Kenyans tried to check in with their friends and family, and identify whether any of the people dead or trapped in the buildings were their loved ones, horrific photos of dead bodies and severed limbs began to circulate. Quick to repost one such photo, was the New York Times. When Kenyans protested directly to the head of the New York Times in the East Africa region, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, she seemed to brush off complaints, attributing the posting of the photos to protocol and urging those with complaints to address them to the New York Times Photo Desk. The photo that depicts dead bodies in the Secret Garden restaurant has been removed from twitter but can still be found in the original NY Times article. Freytas-Tamura’s tweets on the matter have since been deleted and she has instead chosen to retweet the New York Times post about their position on posting photos of tragedies.
This is The New York Times's position on why we published the photos that we did. I've deleted my earlier tweets that did not explain the reasoning behind our decision. https://t.co/kZBnaJLvqo
— Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura (@kimidefreytas) January 15, 2019
The photo, some say, is innocuous. It depicts bodies strewn in the restaurant, with bullet holes and blood, but does not show anyone’s face. The official position of the NY Times, is that it is not showing anything that it would not show of any other tragedy. “We take the same approach wherever in the world something like this happens.” Do they?
When there was a terrorist attack at a Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017, did we see any of the bloodied strewn bodies? What about after the numerous mass shootings in the USA, have we ever seen the bodies of the dead? What about at the Boston marathon bombing, did the media circulate images then? They did not and there was no journalistic need, or desire, to do so either.
It is true, that in Kenya we do not have tight laws on what can and cannot be shown after situations like this. Our own media often, in my opinion, crosses the line of decency. That’s our own issue, that we need to sort out ourselves. We’ll get to it. But for now, the responsibility of foreign media is to treat others the way they would treat their own. With respect and care.
This is not the first time we have seen the trivializing of Kenyan bodies. After the Garissa University massacre happened, images of dead students in their classrooms were shared on all the major social media platforms. Kenyans watching the revived 24 television show, “24: Legacy”, were horrified to see familiar footage; producers had elected to use actual footage of the Westgate terrorist attack, where somebody was shot and killed, in a fictional portrayal of a terrorist attack.
This is my main point: portraying and sharing dead black bodies does not ‘keep things real’ or give “a real sense of the situation”, to quote the NY Times, it instead desensitizes the western world to the tragedies of very real people. It is used as a shock tactic that will make the western reader pause and tut and shake their heads and then move on. This, to me, is cemented by The Daily Express, a British newspaper, when they tweeted about the terrorist attack “Is Kenya safe to travel to now?”
— Daily Express (@Daily_Express) January 15, 2019
The truth as I see it is that tragedies that occur to black and brown people are just stories to be consumed. And you can be as graphic as you want with those. Show private images, share dead bodies strewn across a shell shocked restaurant, fictionalize a real terrorist invasion to further a tv show plot line, none of it is real until the story impacts you. Like is my holiday destination still a safe place? Ultimately, western media can safely do this because they know no white person will ever have to pause the video or zoom in on the photo and remark that the person depicted shot or killed looks like their mother, or their brother, or their child, or themselves.
Enough is enough, we will be disposable no more. We demand to be viewed as people with histories and families and loved ones. More than statistics. More than shock tactics. More than propaganda. The bodies in the NY Times photo were people with names and full lives and loved ones following the news on tv and on radio and Twitter, and hoping that they would somehow be able to come back home to them.