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I would like to give credit where credit is due. Often at times I believe we, as news media consumers, do not appreciate journalists and their perseverance and commitment when capturing good stories. In fact, we are often critical of journalists when we feel they might cross ethical lines to tell a story. Yet, they are the first people we blame when we are not fully informed. It is no walk in the park to be a journalist, to say the least.

That in mind, I have a story to share. I recently came across an article that grabbed my attention for its bravery, and also controversy. On April 14th, Tyler Hicks, a staff photographer for the New York Times, earned a Pulitzer for breaking news photography during a terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. He was awarded “for his compelling pictures that showed skill and bravery in documenting the unfolding terrorist attack.”  This is just one of many pictures taken by Hicks.

Here is Hicks’ story:

On September 21, 2013, at least 16 armed assailants from the Somali Islamist militant group al Shabab attacked the Westgate. The terrorists lobbed grenades and fired automatic weapons into a crowd of weekend shoppers, holding many hostage. After a four-day assault, at least 67 people were killed and more than 170 were injured.

Hicks, who lives in Nairobi, was at the local frame shop that sits adjacent to the mall when he heard the commotion and went over to investigate.  At the time, Hicks only had small camera with him, which he always carries just in case.  His best images were taken from his small camera.  However, he said that his wife, Nichole Sobecki, who is also a photojournalist, brought him his professional camera later.

Hicks said in an interview with the New York Times: ” When I left the framing shop, I could see right away that there was something serious going on, because there were lots of people running away from the mall. I ran over there and within minutes I could see people who had been shot in the leg or stomach from what appeared to be small arms fire being helped by other civilians. This went on for about 30 minutes.”

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Hicks later said: “From the beginning I wanted to get with some security forces inside the mall. We managed to find an entrance where people who were hiding inside the mall were coming out. We ran into that service entrance and we hooked up with some police who let us stay with them as they did security sweeps.  I had a clear view in there. I could see that there were multiple bodies lying dead in the mall, some lying together just next to where they were having lunch at a cafe. It seemed everywhere you turned there was another body.”

After two hours with the police in the mall, Hicks came out to a devastating scene of unarmed civilians who had been shot and were severely injured, a lot in need of medical attention.  Many of Hicks’ photos consisted of shots taken with the mall of dead bodies and the police searching for the shooters.  However, Hicks also took pictures of those injured on the streets.

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So here is where the controversy lies…

Many individuals praised Hicks for his bravery to enter the dangerous mall, put his life at risk, and capture an unfolding story through the lens of a small camera.  However, many others also argued that Hicks crossed an ethical boundary.  Instead of helping shot civilians, who were being dragged out by the police, Hicks chose to photographically document the story…capturing death, destruction, and torment.  Upon winning the Pulitzer, individuals committed on news articles covering his story, such as the New York Times and The Week.  Over 50% of the commits praised Hicks for his courage, dedication, and photography skill.  However, other commits were not as positive.

Here are some pulled from the New York Times:

Westgate Survivor said: “‘Combat photography’ now appears to have become a pawn for terrorist organizations, because whether Mr. Hicks realizes it or not, that’s all he was that day. Driven by his own interests, he unwittingly played such a crucial role in chronicling the horror that so many of us in that mall felt while the attack was ongoing, that if terrorist organizations had a PR award, Mr. Hicks would certainly qualify. This is not profound photojournalism, it is pure sensationalism with a strong whiff of self-promotion.”

Kenyan said: “Dear Mr Hicks, your photojournalist skills are commendable. But you evidently did not extend empathy and professional ethics to the loved ones of these dear and brutally slain Kenyans. Did you pause to ask, what if that was my brother, my sister or my friend? I suppose not. What is done is done, you cannot undo your callous display. I wish you peace of mind in the days to come, you will need it.”

Evelyn said: “I truly have mixed feelings about this. If I were one of the survivors, and my picture was floating around, how would I feel? To know that something horrible and deadly was happening in the mall would be enough news. Great photos, but necessary? I am entitled to my opinion!!”

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So two important questions to Hicks’ story, and so many other photojournalist and journalist like Hicks, are this: To what extent is it okay to photographically document explicit images of death and torture?  In addition, do photojournalists have a moral obligation to drop their camera and assist in such catastrophes or can they document from the sidelines?

These two questions are difficult to answer and will vary based on who you ask.  Even in my own Media Ethics class last semester, my professor could not fully give us a definite answer.  It remains to be answered whether or not ethical standards should be placed on journalists, such as photojournalist, who are simply trying to capture a story and not sugar-coat the horror.  Basically it is a matter if the general public should know the full story or carefully be handed a G-rated version of the story.

What do you think?

In my personal opinion, as long as photojournalist is given consent to use such photos, I think it is right to expose the world of the outrageous tragedies that occur everyday.  I believe censoring photos to the general public does not help educate individuals of what is really going on.  Photos are worth a thousands of words….why not use them?

Good jobs Hicks, your photos spoke wonders to me and certainly captured my full attention!

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