WARNING: Some photos within the article might be graphic and distressing.
Mohammad Noyeem, a Rohingya refugee, looks at a picture that appears to show a Myanmar police officer photographing a bloated corpse in a rice paddy. Asked if the man is wearing an official police uniform and if he recognises the victim, the 18-year-old pushes the phone away and says, “I can’t.” He’s been looking at photographs of corpses and identifying them for over an hour.
For three years, Noyeem lived in a refugee camp in Medan, Indonesia, where New Naratif interviewed him. He has since moved to the United States to be resettled in Portland. He escaped the violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar when he was just 15 years old and has pictures on his phone that were sent to him by his brother-in-law, Samsualom, who fled to Malaysia five years ago. Samsualom has since been meticulously compiling pictures sent to him by friends and family in Rakhine. Noyeem also has pictures from his father and other friends in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The photographs are almost inconceivably violent, but Noyeem and the other refugees at the Hotel Beraspati in Medan would like them to be published by the foreign media.
“We are not lying, the world needs to see this,” is a regular refrain.
The pictures that Noyeem and the other refugees have on their phones are graphic and shocking in their brutality… Noyeem’s phone is a gallery of horror
But the publication of such images presents a series of dilemmas for journalists, even if the refugees themselves urge us to do so.
The pictures that Noyeem and the other refugees have on their phones are graphic and shocking in their brutality. They show bloodied corpses lying in ditches and victims with gratuitous knife wounds, including severed heads. Several pictures show women being burned over an open fire. Others show dead babies lying in pits or being burned on sheets of corrugated metal with a fire beneath them. There are images of women who’ve been mutilated and who appear to have been raped. Some of the people in the pictures look like they have gunshot wounds. Noyeem’s phone is a gallery of horror.
How violent is too violent?
To publish, or not? It’s a moral dilemma for editors who have to make the call. As Roger Tooth, head of photography at The Guardian, says in a piece written in 2014 after the onslaught in Gaza and the MH17 crash over Ukraine: “If you had died a violent and unjust death, wouldn’t you want the world to know all the details surrounding that death? On the other hand, in showing those images, are we perhaps feeding a propaganda machine and fuelling more conflict?”
Publishing graphic images can be gratuitous, employed as sensationalist clickbait for views. Not only do such moves fail to help, they heap another layer of exploitation on to already-persecuted individuals, turning the dead and wounded into objects of fascination to satisfy an audiences’ morbid curiosity.
And if the photographs are so graphic that people can’t bring themselves to look at them, then journalists are doing themselves and their subjects no favours. If people stop reading an article because they are distressed by the accompanying photographs, then we would have failed in our goal of telling an important story in front of the largest number of people possible.
So how far is too far when it comes to violent images, and how much can we expect the public to conceivably handle? In the book War Porn, photographer Christoph Bangert confronts the question: “How can we refuse to acknowledge a mere representation—a picture—of a horrific event, while other people are forced to live through the horrific event itself?”
It’s a fair point, but the images on Noyeem’s phone would challenge even the most stoic of photography editors. In the cases of the women and children in particular, many are them of naked or mutilated. While their violent deaths deserve to be documented, their dignity in death should also be preserved. It’s tough to know where to draw the line.
For wire agency Agence France Presse (AFP), it’s about what’s necessary to convey a sense of what’s happening on the ground: “The goal is not to shock or sensationalize, but to inform. And that means to show, within certain limits, the impact of the conflict on people who live in rebel zones or regime-controlled areas. Not to do so would amount to taking away the victims’ humanity”.
Problems with verification
The fact that many of the photographs coming out of Rakhine are unverified (and extremely difficult to verify) adds another layer of complexity and moral ambiguity to the issue of publication. Almost all the pictures provided by the refugees at the Hotel Beraspati look like they’ve been taken using a mobile phone, often from a distance. A quick search also finds some of these photographs online, published on blogs and social media pages. Many Rohingya are snapping pictures on a mobile phone rather than using a camera, then uploading them to the internet immediately where they take on a life of their own. For many journalists, verifying such photographs is almost impossible, although some news agencies have other measures in place.
One news agency at the forefront of photograph verification is Agence France Presse (AFP), which uses a network of local stringers or ‘citizen journalists’ to take photographs in places like Syria. To verify photographs, they check the metadata of the image and cross reference this with information from Google Maps to identify local landmarks. AFP is one of the few news agencies in the world with sophisticated software and a photo lab in Paris that can authenticate photographs. The majority of smaller newsrooms simply don’t have the resources to do this.
When Noyeem looks at the photographs that his brother-in-law sent from Malaysia and his father and siblings sent from Bangladesh, he says he recognises places around his hometown of Shilkali, particularly the areas by the river. He recognises some of the people in them. One photo shows three women lying dead in the mud, and Noyeem says his brother-in-law told him they were housewives, although he can’t remember their names. In another photo, he identifies a man who appears to have had his lower legs hacked off; Noyeem says he was a fisherman who lived at the other end of Shilkali so he didn’t know him well.
Out of all the pictures, Noyeem positively identifies only one person by name; an older man he says was called Antamia is lying dead on the ground, covered in blood. Noyeem says he was around 60 years old and had worked as one of the village chiefs, providing guidance to the youngsters in Shilkali. Noyeem thinks he had been deliberately targeted for being someone in a position of authority in the village. He recounts all this matter-of-factly, but when asked how he feels he shakes his head and says, “Sad. A kind man.”
But it’s not enough that one source claims to know the people in the pictures and says that they are from Shilkali. Noyeem provides names of people who sent him the pictures, like his brother-in-law Samsualom and his friend Rayullah who’s now in Bangladesh. But they’re still only unknown entities at the end of a mobile phone. It isn’t clear who took the photographs, who owns the copyright or if they’ve been doctored in some way. And while there’s no suggestion that Noyeem isn’t telling the truth, journalists face other problems when recording testimonies.
Scepticism and responsibility
Journalists like The New York Times’ Hannah Beech have written about their experience reporting from Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. “Within an hour, I had a notebook filled with the kind of quotes that pull at heartstrings. Little of it was true,” she wrote.
As Beech explains, the reasons why Rohingya refugees sometimes don’t tell the full truth are varied. Some might believe that it’s in their interests to make their story sound as shocking and interesting as possible, so journalists would be inclined to print it and get the world to pay attention to the crisis. Refugees may also be struggling with trauma that makes it difficult to recall details with accuracy. It’s the reason why some victims of violent situations, such as robbery, fail to remember the faces of their attackers or make mistakes about times and dates. It’s understandable that the severe repression and violence that Rohingya refugees have suffered will take its toll.
As Beech explains, publishing something that later turns out to be untrue can have dire consequences: “[…] false narratives devalue the genuine horrors—murder, rape and mass burnings of villages—that have been inflicted upon the Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces. And such embellished tales only buttress the Myanmar government’s contention that what is happening in Rakhine State is not ethnic cleansing, as the international community suggests, but trickery by foreign invaders.”
Even the best of intentions might end up being counter-productive. Beech’s own article was criticised for playing straight into the hands of the Myanmar authorities; commentators questioned her decision to single out particular individuals, the veracity of their accounts, and the whole point of her article. That some refugee stories might be false should, after all, not come as a surprise to journalists, who deal with unreliable sources all the time—and not just among refugees, but also businesspeople, public relations executives, politicians or government representatives.
Predictably, Myanmar state media continues to dine out on Hannah Beech’s NYT piece pic.twitter.com/P9JC8Kwyn9
— Kayleigh E. Long (@ayleighk) February 9, 2018
That one journalist’s attempt to try to convey the complexity of her reporting experience ended up being used by the authorities to discredit and undermine an already-marginalised community just demonstrates how carefully the media should tread in handling such a fraught situation.
New Naratif spent some time discussing, as a team, how to respond to Noyeem’s request that we publish the photos in his possession. We talked about all the issues mentioned above, taking into particular consideration our capacity, as a small start-up with very limited manpower and funding, to verify the photos. We knew that it would be problematic to publish such graphic images, but also felt that we couldn’t turn away from Noyeem’s plea for help.
It was important to us that Noyeem be portrayed as more than just a victim, but as an individual with agency who speaks for himself
In the end, we’ve decided to publish the photographs that Noyeem showed us the way we first saw them: on his phone. We’ve also asked Noyeem to explain why he believes so strongly in the publication of these photos; he gave his account shortly before he left for the United States, and it has been reproduced with minimal edits. It was important to us that Noyeem be portrayed as more than just a victim, but as an individual with agency who speaks for himself.
There are no perfect answers or easy solutions for journalists faced with reporting on complicated issues involving some of the worst suffering on the planet. As Fred Ritchin, co-director of the Photography & Human Rights program at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, says: “There is no calculus to determine the most effective way to show horror.”
Update (21 September 2018): Read Aisyah Llewellyh’s follow up story on Noyeen’s life in Portland, Oregon.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!