by Kim Ludbrook
While covering the #feesmustfall protests over the last two months, one of many clashes between police forces and protesting students brought one of the great moral questions back to the forefront of my consciousness.
The police forces had dropped stun grenades in the middle of students sitting outside the main campus of Wits University. The huge energy of the grenades exploding coupled with the tear gas inside the grenades sent hundreds of students running for cover towards the entrance gate. The sound deafened many and one student was burned by the shock of the grenade that exploded under her. Total panic ensued as I shot images more by instinct than looking through the viewfinder with precision. I already started to look for cover as the police, to my left, started to shoot at the students with rubber bullets. I suddenly found myself in the middle of cross fires as the students had now re-grouped and started to throw stones at the police. As I ran towards the students ‘lines’ and through the green smoke of another grenade, I noticed a man holding onto what seemed to be a female student. She was totally in shock, simply standing their and crying. A colleague of mine and I went up to her and shouted,’ Breathe, just breathe. Stand up and move yourself away from the fire and to a place of safety.’
Then after helping her as best we could in that moment we shot a couple of frames. This took us less than one second. Then we moved on to keep working while all around us the clashes intensified. What really hurt me, though, was minutes later when a few students carried the women towards their own ‘medics’, to hear them shouting at us: ‘ No media! No media. You vultures. You don’t even help us.’ That’s when the moral question that I had not faced for some time came up: should we as photojournalists help people who need help while we cover stories or are we there simply as observers to record the events and inform the greater public?
Two weeks later at the same campus the same question came up again. Again there where violent clashes between police forces and students. As the tear gas, rubber bullets and stones flew through the air I noticed some young female students who had been caught in the crossfire. They where huddling behind a small concrete block. In a moment my soul decided to run over to them and move them out of the danger area. So I grabbed them by the arm knowing that I had to use controlled force to get them to their feet and helped them move away. Once they were in safety, I carried on covering the story.
The flip side of the coin is when I could NOT help a student who had been hit in the side of the head by a huge stone thrown by her fellow students. I had been talking to her and photographing her peaceful protest of flowers on the step of the Great Hall at Wits just minutes before another clash between students and police. I never knew what condition she was in after being taken away by the medics.
Covering the #feesmustfall story was a roller coaster of emotions for me and many other journalists covering the protests because of the constant balancing act you play in needing to be impartial and remaining a professional photojournalist in the face of huge human dramas playing out in front of you. I was racially abused, sworn at by students, berated for being part of the media and insulted by students for ‘taking pictures of their wounded comrades’ .
Yes, one realises it’s ‘part of the job’ we signed up for when chosing to become a photojournalist.
That said and after much soul searching, I realise that for me personally I will continue to help people where they need it and where I can SAFELY help without becoming part of the story. Deep down my soul stills wants to document the human condition and that includes coming to terms with this moral dilemma when covering news events. After all, who would be the witness for the world if photojournalists did not face these situations.
Time for the de-stress of a yoga class I think!