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September 22, 2013

Things to be Concerned About in the Mall Attack Photos from Nairobi (GRAPHIC)

The largest point to make about the Nairobi attack is one that is so obvious, it’s almost impossible to appreciate. Clearly the media wouldn’t be on fire if this massacre had taken place in outdoor market stalls frequented by the poor and the middle class, or some ramshackle mall somewhere in the developing world. Instead however, it’s the upscale mall, that similar to the one you’d see in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale. And if it’s hard for us to appreciate how brilliant this was — just like the school shooting in Newtown trumps dozens on Chicago’s South Side, I’m sure al-Shabab understands and appreciates the connection.

Temples of Western commerce aside, the challenge for American visual media to find a baggage-free way to put its eyes on this dizzying real-time cataclysm only gets more complicated. Given the amount of violence in American movies, one school of thought would be to steer clear of anything that confuses the dramatization of war, soldiers and violence with the real thing. The photo above, on the other hand, appeared in-column in the breaking NYT Lens post beneath a very intense slideshow by Times photographer and Nairobi-resident, Tyler Hicks.  If the caption had made some reference to the poster, if just to acknowledge its enormous weight in the image,  that would be one thing, but here’s how it reads:

Gunshots continued to ring out after nightfall, though the Kenyan authorities did not provide much information about what was happening inside the mall.

It’s the fact we’re forced to silently account for this outsized celluloid (or video game) mashup somewhere and somehow in our brains, while also parsing it out from the real horror, is what’s actually more jarring.

Still another variation of the drama theme involves the depiction of those civilian security personnel. The warning light here involves the risk of blurring the line between editorial photography with powerful associations to violent blockbusters and blaxplotation films.

With the alternately hot and cool lighting, the dramatic profile, the escalator with the bad guys up there somewhere, and, again, the cinematic posters packing the frame, this photo — which also ran on the front page of yesterday’s NYT print edition — might do justice to Tarantino.

And there are at a least a few more themes to be watchful about.

Be it Kenya or Haiti, there is always the danger of fostering an image of ineptitude on the part of local authorities, especially in contrast to the capacities of the white Westerner.

This gives us the tremulousness of the local forces and balloons on the set of Fright Night.

These image are insidious, I should emphasize, because they’re not ubiquitous but mostly, rather, embedded in a larger mix. As a result, they will subtly undermine photos like this one, a shot which is exemplary for the officer’s poise.

Another point. It’s important to make sure there’s no ambiguity between who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy when it comes to black men with guns. The problem with this Reuters image appearing in this Telegraph slideshow has to do with the caption.  It reads:

Kenya’s presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.
Picture: Goran Tomasevic /Reuters

You would hope that the readers saw enough of the pictures or read the stories enough to understand that the attackers remained completely invisible  – to the press at least. Otherwise, it’s entirely possible to confuse which side this guy’s on.

Back to the Hollywood theme, another way to understand the danger here has to do with infusing horrific news images with irony.

The mall might be generic but what can’t be underestimated — considering we’re still talking about “the dark continent” — is the domestic readership’s capacity for cultural incomprehension.  I’m sure upscale Africans understand the artifact as an amusement and a throwback — similar to the statue in a mall in San Francisco of a miner panning for gold . Still, I think it’s symbolically tricky in this foreign land, to juxtapose this screaming savagery (and the cammo) with an elephant.

(photo 1-3, 8 : Tyler Hicks/New York Times. photo 4: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters caption: A journalist rescues a woman injured in the shootout. photo 4: Siegfried Modola/Reuters caption: A police officer tries to secure an area inside the Westgate Shopping Centre. The al-Qaida-linked Somali militant group Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. photo 5: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters via WAPO caption: A soldier carries a child to safety.)

  • Pingback: Tyler Hicks Photographs the Nairobi Mall Attack | dvafoto

  • mommyca

    and what do you say about the NYT pairing the picture you show here with a smaller one showing dead and bloodied bodies (not clear whether they were the attackers or victims) in the front page on Sunday?. It offended me; if the shooting had happened in a mall in the US, that would have never been accepted; somehow the NYT values the lives of victims differently, depending on where they live (or die). Disgusting double standard.

  • sparxesplin

    An interesting article, but I feel there are some crass arguments being put forward here. “With the alternately hot and cool lighting, the dramatic profile…” Really? It’s not as if the photographer staged the environment to give such a representation. Should we no longer use photography to show horrific acts of violence because of a potential academic reference to video games and cinema? I certainly hope not. I fail to see the racial undertones and blaxploitation references in the images you reference. The photographer[s] is responding to a breaking news environment that happens to be in a shopping mall. Such juxtaposed semiotics are inevitable given the environment, and surreal situation. With the questionable history photography has across the continent it is understandable to want to highlight potential representation issues, and I would agree there would be an issue if all the images were of the ‘white saviour’ like Mukoya’s image arguably portrays, but they’re not, are they. I do agree that the captions might cause confusion, but as these images have been presented alongside contextualising articles etc I would be surprised if an audience was ultimately mislead after viewing the images in their original context. It feels a little reactionary to respond with such strong accusations of imperial gaze.

    • Michael Shaw

      I’m glad you brought up the issues you did. There is a significant difference between the NYT edit of Tyler’s photos and the collection of pictures from Reuters and Getty from that first day.

      I could go into the differences more categorically — that the edit of Tyler’s photos, for example, are all indoors so you don’t get a sense you are really anywhere. Primarily though, Tyler’s images are more stylized and aesthetic in a way, as I said, that is encouraging these popular culture associations. Of course he didn’t stage the lighting — but it’s my guess he’s subconsciously looking to compliment the drama with the available trappings (lighting, objects on the wall, the elephant, ) to lend style. And yes, with the movie poster I led off the post with, I think he’s also adding irony. Just like the photo of the two security guys — as unusually tight as that shot is; as much as you sense a drama playing out between the two of them; as much as it relates to partner dramas; as bug-eyed as the one guy is (there’s always a cool one and an excitable one, right?) — is calling up the language of cinema and the narrative of the action movie.

      Also, what message does it send that these breaking news photos were published in Lens, a destination at the Times for more documentary or artistic work — as opposed to what we’d expect as straight editorial/hard news? Right there, you have a blurring of the boundaries between news and more interpretive work. The blurring of art/style and documentary has been evident in the NYT Mag for many years now. Wither the editorial photograph?

  • bks3bks

    Good point that “upscale mall” == “front page”

    In Iraq this sort of thing is happening weekly. In Pakistan it happened yesterday:;-over-145-injured –bks

  • GeorgeMokray

    Grand Theft Auto 5 goes viral. And invades realtime/biological meat (and blood) space.

  • cappelletti63

    The photographer was always in the right spot. Interesting….

  • sparxesplin

    Another perspective you might find interesting: “Kenyans on Twitter respond to Sunday Nation’s cover image choice of Westgate mall attack.” Via Al Jazeera.

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