Ideas and debates in journalism

Bearing witness: photojournalists and correspondents challenging macho culture and normative thinking


This was a blog post I wrote for an assignment in Journalism Studies. It was a hotly debated topic in the tutorial, but it helped focus my thinking on what it means to be behind a camera. I don’t think getting shocking images is what journalism’s about, no matter how much you believe the world should see it. For me, it’s about never losing sight of what makes you care about a story.


Picture this: a partially dressed woman is pleading with a couple of men to let her go (ASALJIE and ICE 2006). It’s Sierra Leone in the 90s during its gruesome civil war. The men are from a Civil Defence Unit (CDU) organised by local people to protect the area from the rebels (the civil war was fought between the government and groups of rebels who killed many civilians and were renowned for amputating the limbs of their victims).

The woman, whose top had been stripped off, is wearing a bra; skirt, and her legs are tied together. She tells the CDU man interrogating her that she’s escaped a rebel area, and is not married to a rebel. The interrogator continues to question her and she pleads her innocence. Then a woman steps up and says she recognises the accused woman later telling the CDU representative that the accused woman should be ’cut up into little pieces.’

At that stage, the cameraperson stops filming and intervenes. He tells the CDU that people might be lying and they should let the woman go. They do.

The cameraperson was Sierra Leonean journalist Sonny Cole who worked for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation. He had covered the war extensively and his high profile work meant he was recognised and trusted. He was often called upon to intervene on behalf of people in trouble, and he did.

Penny Tweedie’s experience in contrast, provides a clear example of how ethical questions that confront journalists in covering conflicts need to be constantly and vigorously debated. Attempting to influence the pack of photographers –who’d attended the victory rally in Dhaka’s football stadium—to stop photographing something horrific which relied upon their presence, proved futile for Tweedie. It highlights the macho culture of much of war correspondents’ attitudes, and how important it is to challenge that culture.

Marie Colvin, a photojournalist and war correspondent who was killed in Syria with French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik in March 2012 rejects the notion of the journalist as ‘bystander’, taking her cue from a sense of justice which demands she report on the morality of what she’s covering (Leith 2004).

In Bearing Witness: The Lives of War Correspondents and Photojournalists, Colvin argues that our humanity, our ability to act and to intervene is an essential part of journalism. ’If you are there where people are dying and you can do one thing to save one person, to me that is just a microcosm of what we are trying to do in a larger sense… and if there is a jerrycan sitting there and someone is about to set themselves on fire I would take it away,’ (Leith 2004).


Speaking to the Media Report on Radio National, Sonny Cole said: ‘ [S]ome people who were at the point of death at that time; they [kept] calling my name, ‘Sonny, can you talk to this guy, say that I’m not a bad person, I’m not a rebel’, so those kind of things,’ (El Gawley, 2008). As someone living in a country that’s imploding and who saw some of the most chilling acts of violence, Cole took the position that his work was about advocacy: ‘From my own perspective, as a journalist I believe we are playing the role of human rights activists at the same time because when I was there with the camera, they knew that my camera was on, then if I keep talking to those guys, they would let some of those people go… in my presence they did free some people,’ (El Gawley, 2008).

One of the most famous war images comes was taken by Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, and comes from the Vietnam War. Ut snapped the image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc screaming and running naked on a road with other children quickly, then drove her and the other children to a hospital where he insisted she be well taken care of (Aedy 2013) .

He was not the only one to intervene. Other journalists who were there, also intervened. ITN correspondent Chris Waine stopped Phuc from running and poured water over her body while his crew kept filming (Lumb 2010). A few days later, Waine was able to move her to a specialist plastic surgery hospital for life saving treatment (Lumb 2010).

Today, Phuc is in her fifties, and is enjoying life in Toronto. Had it not been for the initial and then ongoing interventions of the photojournalists and correspondents, Ms Phuc may have not survived.

All these accounts have a common thread of seeing the practice of journalism as part of the whole experience of the reporter, which don’t dismiss gut instincts (Tweedie), moral positions (Colvin), or a sense of justice (Cole). The ability to negotiate the greyness of a territory is helped ironically by having a clearer sense of one’s purpose and humanity. The lesson perhaps is to acknowledge subjectivity and complexity, and not to be troubled by either.


Darkness Over Paradise 2006, documentary, Association of Sierra Leonean Journalists in Exile (ASALJE) & Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE), Sydney

Leith, Denise, 2004, Bearing Witness: The Lives of War Correspondents and
Photojournalists viewed September 19 2013,

El Gawley, N. 2008, From Reporter to Refugee transcript, The Media Report, Radio National, ABC Radio, Sydney, July 17, viewed 16 September 2013,

El Gawley, N. 2008, From Reporter to Refugee transcript, The Media Report, Radio National, ABC Radio, Sydney, July 17, viewed 16 September 2013,

Aedy, Richard, 2013, David Burnett, US Photographer, Sunday Profile, Radio National ABC Radio, Sydney, September 13, Viewed 15 September 2013,

Lumb, Rebecca, 2010, Reunited with the ‘ Vietnamese girl’ in the picture, BBC News, May 17, viewed September 15 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s