this article fist run in the New Vision of December 4th, 2020
You’re a journalist and are the first on the scene of an accident; do you do your job, take pictures and gather information for a story, hoping someone else will help the victims? Or do you help the victims, and thus not do your job? It is a dilemma that is usually encountered in Journalism 101, to show aspiring journalists how not straightforward their work is going to be.
This came to my mind when someone tweeted recently about the trauma journalists go through while covering tense situations like demonstrations and riots, and the lack of assistance in dealing with the ensuing Post Stress Trauma Disorder (PSTD). This Ugandan journalist wrote how he quit being a journalist because he couldn’t deal with the stress and trauma.
There has not been a major war in Uganda for a while, so the closest today’s journalists have come to major stressful situations are probably when politicians campaign for office every 5 years. The recent riots are a case in point, when security forces used live ammunition to restore order, resulting into the deaths of several dozen civilians.
That relatively young journalist probably had the right to fear for his life, and the shock and trauma that comes with that. But maybe he should take a moment to think of others that have come before him.
The film We Were Soldiers (2002) is about one of the first battalions of the US Army to fight in Vietnam, against overwhelming numbers of Vietcong. Imbedded (the word did not exist then, of course) with the US soldiers was TV reporter Joe Galloway, who eventually wrote the book on which the film was based. He survived the series of battles that pitted more than 4,000 Vietnamese against the 400 US soldiers. Wonder what he would think of Ugandan journalists traumatised by the campaign riots.
Nearer home, many of my colleagues at the New Vision covered the last stages of the Rwanda War in 1994, and the genocide that preceded it. In fact one of them, the late Cranimer Mugerwa, was the first to take pictures inside the Presidential palace after the fall of Kigali. There are tales of how so eager he was to take pictures of the live action that he was assigned a full-time RPA soldier, to pull him back when he got too eager. Those colleagues told of literally wading through human bodies, victims of the genocide.
In the late 1990s, the Allied Democratic Front started a series of bombings in Kampala. For some reason, they would throw a bomb or two somewhere in Kampala every Saturday at exactly 8pm. To be ready to ‘cover’ the action, the New Vision formed a ‘bomb squad’, of which yours truly was part of. Our job was to be ready every Saturday night, and at the first reports of a bomb we would be there in minutes, to capture the scene as it was.
I forget how many bombings we covered, but the 1999 Valentine’s Day bombing in Kabalagala was probably the most gruesome. There were body parts everywhere, and I vividly remember a colleague pointing out, “there’s a foot, photograph that.” And we moved on, looking for more body parts to take pictures of.
It wasn’t till much later, after we had developed and printed the pictures, and then submitted them for the next day’s paper; while I was having a beer in Wandegeya, when all that had happened hit me. The unforgettable stench of human blood stayed with me for a long time after that, and that was the last time I covered any such disaster.
The ADF was soon defeated and the bombings stopped, only for Somalia’s Al-Shabab to carry out twin bombings during the final game of the 2010 Wold Cup at Kyadondo Rugby Club. I was supposed to be at Kyadondo that night, but finished work late, the match had already started, and I knew I wouldn’t get a good seat. So I decided to watch the game at a pub in Ntinda.
But my colleague Norman Katende was there, with his camera, and the images he captured won him the CNN/Multichoice Press Photographers of the Year award in 2011. Katende, who was nominally a sports photographer, is somewhere in Australia, but I don’t know if he suffers from PSTD as a result of the Kyadondo bombing. I don’t think I do, from all those torn bodies I took pictures of.
An example cited in any journalism class is that famous picture taken during the Ethiopian famine of 1993 by South African freelance photographer Kevin Carter. Dubbed ‘The vulture and the little girl’, it shows a naked and emaciated girl, curled up into herself, with a lurking vulture in the background.
Published in the New York Times, it won Carter the Pulitzer Prize for photography. But it also caused uproar in the public, with many wanting to know what happened to the little girl. Carter was bombarded with accusations of being selfish, of using people’s misery to earn himself accolades, in spite of explanations by the New York Times that the girl reached the feeding station, and eventually survived. Carter could not take the criticism and committed suicide, just 2 months after receiving the Pulitzer Prize.
But times have changed, of course. These days no more pictures of torn bodies or people in distress are published in the newspapers. Readers of Bukedde especially used to love those gory images, and anytime there was a bad accident and the pictures were put on the front pages, Bukedde would sell out.
Times have changed so much that a Daily Nation editor that run the picture of a woman screaming in agony after the Westgate terrorist attack was subsequently fired. But the picture went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year award for the photographer.
So I have no idea what could have traumatised that young journalist so much that he quit the profession. He also said that there was no help in dealing with all that he went through, which is fair enough. We guys also never had any of that help, guess each one managed to find a way to deal with it without losing their marbles. And then went out to look for the next war or the next terrorist bombing.
So back to that question from Journalism 101, what would you do? The answer is, you take the picture or gather the information you need for the story. So that female journalist complete with body armour photographed helping victims of tear gas in last week’s riot would have probably lost her job. But I guess not these days.