The ethical responsibility to step in

Kiwiana (inked) put up a really thought-provoking post about the Bystander Effect – specifically looking at the case of a photojournalist who chose to keep taking pictures while a violent assault was committed in front of her (trigger warning for both Kiwiana’s post itself, which discusses domestic violence, and links to the violent images in question.)

I agree with her that there’s just something seriously squicky about a person, whatever their professional or philosophical calling, using a kind of “greater good” argument to justify not stepping in when someone is screaming at and choking their partner.

There’s something else, though, in the photojourno’s own description of what happened, which stood out to me:

I knew I had to stay with the story and document it in all of its ugly truth.

This dovetailed with a series of tweets by @leonineleft on Twitter about reporting on the Steubenville gang-rape (and associated cover-up):

Read a Fairfax report on the sexual violence against the victim in Steubenville & explicit details of what happened to her was UNnecessary.

You can still talk about the dehumanising of rape victims or survivors without going into explicit and pornographic detail re: her body.

Like in Bumiller’s book, it’s as if presentation of the body-espec. explicit-is needed to PROVE that any form of sexual violence happened.

(Links to tweet 1, tweet 2, tweet 3)

This made me ask the question:  why did Sara Naomi Lewkowicz say she “had” to “stay with the story”?  Why did it need to be “document[ed] in all of its ugly truth”?

(There’s certainly the practical argument in this specific case that her photos serve as proof of the assault – though I would dearly love to see the reactions of the attending police officers when told “oh, by the way, this woman stood by taking pictures of the whole situation”.)

But why do these images have to be taken, have to be published, have to be available for the world to see?  Do we really need graphic depictions of real-life assaults – in the case of Steubenville, graphic descriptions of rape – in order to “get” that they’re serious?  In order to “understand” that domestic violence is violence (for Steubenville: that sexual assault is assault)?

The depressing answer, I conclude, is yes.  People don’t really believe domestic violence happens.  They don’t really understand what domestic violence is.  The fact that we’ve appended the word “domestic” to it illustrates how we treat it differently from other types of violence – it emphasises that it’s private, personal, not our business.

In any semi-decent society, it should be enough that a person says “my partner assaulted me”.  That should be the line that we don’t let people cross.

But because we do treat domestic violence – violence predominantly committed by men against women – as different, as lesser, and because we do downplay acts of violence if they’re in a domestic context, and because we do immediately start asking victims of domestic violence questions like “was your partner drunk/jealous?” or “did you make your partner angry?” …

Yes.  It seems we do need the occasional photojournalist to be on site, to keep taking photographs while another person is violently assaulted* in order to have something we can point to so we can categorically state, “domestic violence is serious and needs to be treated seriously.”

How fucked up is that?

~

*Note that Lewkowicz did make sure someone else was calling the police while she took the pictures.

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5 comments

  1. CodyHM

    I cannot tolerate this sort of behaviour, tbh. It’s an easy way out to sit on the side, not deal with the problem, and then tell the story afterwards. We need more people that are not afraid to actually step forward and help someone.
    You can still tell a story, and make sure a story is heard, even if you are involved. Sure journalism is important, and making sure people know what has happened is vital to helping stop domestic violence in society as a whole – but faced with a situation where you can either a) stand on the side while some poor person is battered by someone who is supposed to love and care for them, or b) yell, shout, run over and actually try and protect someone who is defenseless, there is no justification for not helping someone in need, that you could do something to change.
    Also in regards to: “…start asking victims of domestic violence questions like “was your partner drunk/jealous?” or “did you make your partner angry?” …”
    There is no excuse for domestic violence, even if your partner is the most sassy mofo you can imagine, no fucking excuse.

  2. Draco T Bastard (@DracoTBastard)

    But because we do treat domestic violence – violence predominantly committed by men against women – as different, as lesser…

    We treat domestic violence as if it’s out of bounds, as it’s a private matter within a family and nothing to do with the community of which that family is a part of. It’s how we’ve been trained over the years and decades both with the individualism of today and of the family is everything of yesteryear. This, of course, we need to change because if we don’t then society will shatter and collapse.

  3. Luxated

    I know it’s easy to say when I didn’t have to deal with the situation myself, but this statement really pisses me off.

    “I knew I had to stay with the story and document it in all of its ugly truth.”

    Perhaps, just perhaps, if they had put down their bloody camera there wouldn’t wouldn’t be (as much of) a story!

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