Earlier this week South African photographer James Oatway and journalist Beauregard Tromp were in Alexandra township, an impoverished township that can euphemistically be described as “gritty”.
The journalists came upon a Mozambican man being set upon amid the dumped trash and overflowing public toilets. Emmanuel Sithole was the latest victim of the xenophobic, or more accurately, Afrophobic violence that has gripped South Africa over the last weeks.
Oatway ran to the scene and began photographing, which caused the attackers to back off. They returned and continued their attack as dozens of South Africans watched. One man tried to persuade the assailants to cease, but he was ignored. As the assault continued, Oatway continued to take pictures. Once the attackers left, Oatway and Tromp managed to get Sithole into their car and take him to a clinic, but to no avail.
The images have predictably sparked both outrage at the xenophobic attacks, but also questions about what journalists should do in such situations. The former leader of the massive trade union federation Cosatu tweeted: “What’s your view of pics taken by a journalist of Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed in Alex? Should journalists not take or show such pictures?”
Both Oatway and Tromp have previously experienced hand to hand violence in the course of their work. Tromp witnessed the fiery death of another Mozambican national burnt by a South African mob some years before.
When striking miners attacked a union official in Rustenburg three years ago, Oatway stepped into a very difficult situation to prevent the man’s possible murder. It was a very brave and human act, that only a few people who witnessed it will ever recall. His photographs from Emmanuel Sithole’s death, on the other hand, will remain as a testament to the terror experienced by immigrants during such spasms of xenophobic violence.
As appalling as the reports of violence are, it really is the images that snatch our breath away, that render the unimaginable tangible. And it is this power that is at the heart of photojournalism. Oatway would not have been in Alexandra that morning were it not his job to cover the racism and national or tribal chauvinism exhibited by some South Africans towards their fellow Africans. His job is to photograph what happens. Journalism schools teach you to not interfere in a situation, for better or for worse.
Yet when a terrible human drama is unfolding in front of the camera, there is an internal tug of war between doing the job as a professional and thus allowing society a glimpse into an otherwise hidden evil, and the very human urge to intervene.
These are always extremely difficult choices to make, entirely dependent on very specific contexts. There are some photographers who are driven entirely by a desire to promote their careers, and conflicts zones can often serve them well. The fear of the attackers turning on the photographer should he or she interfere is also a very real factor.
There are many historical precedents both for and against the argument to either intervene or bear impartial witness. The 1971 bayonetting of prisoners in a Bangladeshi stadium in 1971 by Horst Faas and Michel Laurent won them a Pulitzer. The AP photographers were not the only ones there that day.
A Bangladeshi photographer Rashid Talukder only made his images public twenty years after the incident, fearing he would be targeted had he done so at the time.
Magnum photographer Rene Burri walked out of the stadium, believing that the photojournalists’ presence would be a catalyst to the executions.
Of those three very different responses to an historic incident of terrible violence, which is correct?
In Oatway’s case, what are we to make of the dilemma he found himself in?
He is a man who has chosen photojournalism as his career, and as such must strive to capture images that make an impact on any given story, yet he has previously shown that he is capable of choosing to save a life rather than take what would have been powerful pictures that would further his ambitions.
At the root of these musings must be the question that addresses the nut of the matter: what was Oatway doing there that morning? Was his task to assist people at risk from xenophobia through direct action, or bear witness to what might happen?
The duty of a photojournalist is to bear witness; to show the world what is happening. Some may hope that this will lead to change, others believe that the act of documentation is of itself sufficient.
Would Oatway sleep better had he been able to save Sithole? Surely the answer is yes, but the photographer’s duty was to capture those searing images and hope that society will act.
Greg Marinovich is a filmmaker, Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and co-author of The Bang Bang Club.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.