The photograph by Ketevan Kardava became the iconic representation of the Brussels attack

How image of an Indian woman wounded in Brussels blasts has started a debate on journalismImage in inset: via Facebook
Flix Brussels Attack Saturday, March 26, 2016 - 15:43

Until March 23, Nidhi Chaphekar, an in-flight manager with Jet Airways, was about as familiar to the wider world as the next person on the street. Reportedly, many people in her locality knew about the “airhostess lady” who lived there, but had not seen her.

All that changed on March 23, when a photograph of Chaphekar taken by Ketevan Kardava, a correspondent for the Georgian Public Broadcaster network in Ukraine, became the iconic representation of the Brussels attack and was splashed across front pages and websites around the world.

Kerdava has subsequently been interviewed by various publications about her decision to take the iconic photograph. She has claimed that it was journalistic instinct that pushed her to take the picture.

"What do you do in this situation if you’re a journalist? Help? Ask doctor to come? Or take a photo?... In that very moment, I realized that to show the world what was happening in this moment of terror, a photo was more important."

The photograph features Chaphekar and another woman, facing away from each other. While the other woman looks relatively unmarked (except for the hand holding a phone to her ear, which is covered in blood), Nidhi is bleeding from the face and legs and her hair is caked in dust. Most importantly, her uniform shirt and jacket are mostly burnt or torn away, leaving Chaphekar sitting awkwardly, stunned, in only her bra.

It is this crucial detail that has caught the attention of many, as the ethics of displaying Chaphekar in such a state has become a matter of some discussion and debate among Indian journalists and readers. When the Times of India published this picture, for instance, numerous people took to Twitter to condemn the newspaper for taking away Chaphekar’s dignity, and violating her privacy.

One Twitter user said that the photograph was in bad taste, and requested that the newspaper, “Please keep in mind the modesty of a woman before publishing”.

Another user claimed that “no woman would like to see herself in a bra on the front page of a national daily,” and asked the newspaper why it did not respect Nidhi Chaphekar.

The media got into the act as well, though they were less unambiguous about it. The Telegraph, for instance, did not comment itself on the picture, but carried a quote from Lalit Babu, the chief security guard of Chaphekar’s housing colony, disapproving of the picture.

“It was not nice to see Madam's picture in the morning papers with her clothes burnt and her undergarments showing. The least they could have done is to cover her," the newspaper quoted him as saying. It also headlined its piece, a backgrounder on Chaphekar, “’Wasn't nice to see Nidhi's photo in papers'”.

The International Business Times reported on the controversy itself, also carrying a quote from a UK media law trainer, David Banks, which read, "One picture being shared from Brussels... was of a woman, covered in blood, her clothes blown apart revealing her upper body, looking at the camera. Do her feelings of being photographed in this way count for anything?"

The Huffington Post, on the other hand, decided to take on the issue head-on, with an opinion piece by contributing editor, Sandeep Roy, titled, “We Need to Talk About this Picture”, in which the author lamented the lack of a “fundamental decency” in such situations. Roy argued that, “When the media choose that particular image they are also choosing very consciously to strip Nidhi Chaphekar of her own dignity, at a moment when she is at her most vulnerable.”

He also went on to say, “We may balk at an image that is too explicitly gruesome but are blind to the many other ways we can exploit the plight of people trapped in a terrible tragedy.”

And he argued that as the world grows more intimate and interconnected through digital pathways, images have a far greater currency and ubiquity than ever before. However, this very ubiquity lets us avoid responsibility for the image, since “everyone else is sharing it anyway.”

The debate might have ended there, except that Indrani Basu, News Editor for Huffington Post, on Saturday wrote a piece explicitly in defense of the picture.  Basu argued that, of course, the picture was not nice, and it could not have been nice since it featured a person who had just survived a terror attack, and that was also why it was an important photograph.

“It is an unsettling image, but just because it captures a mother of two whose clothes have been burnt to shreds cannot be a reason for not taking the photo, and for not publishing it. Terror has a nasty way of not caring about these things,” she wrote.

As for the argument from indecency, Basu countered that this subscribed to, “a familiar form of censorship — that a woman seen in her undergarments is obscene, and that (in this context), Chaphekar's portrait in her state of disarray brings shame to her, as she is responsible for how she is seen in public. Or that it was somehow Kardava's job to avert gaze from Chaphekar's appearance to accommodate this idea of "decency".”

A look at the comments to Basu’s articles show that the issue is far from settled in readers’ minds. One commenter, for instance, asks why one’s eye is persistently drawn to Chaphekar’s torn clothes, her stomach and her black bra. Another argued that the woman next to Chaphekar in the photograph confirms that there were others who had been caught in the blast who were in physically better shape. “Choosing, therefore, to go with the half-undressed subject is certainly at least arguably exploitative and sensational.”

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