Arts and Entertainment

Photography in Terrorism: An Exploitation

A think-piece about the role media photography has during terrorism—specifically, how it exploited Stuyvesant students’ “private sphere” and serves unjust issues like Islamophobia.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

On the evening of Halloween, room 629 was a frustrating scene. My classmates crowded around the leftmost window, squinting their eyes at the only visible sliver of a damaged school bus (I sat back trying to finish my physics homework), when I realized what I had left at home: my camera.

All I wanted was a single shot of the window. Articles were telling us that two people were dead, which quickly turned into four, then eight, and it was all somewhere close by, outside that window.

For me, photography has been a way of understanding moments after they happen and of looking at a scene and highlighting the most intimate and meaningful things within it. It’s not always about capturing tragedy, beauty, or people in conflict. What truly matters about a photograph is simply its mood and its message, and it can convey those things in seconds.

The most recent attack has brought the role of photography in terrorism to the forefront, and it shows us how the media has abused photography’s true purpose. Rather than releasing images that should capture the strength and unity that our city must exhibit, they’ve instead taken photographs that exploit the Stuyvesant student body and the international community. And at its worst, this can only heighten feelings of fear and chaos.

On the night of the attack, Stuyvesant was surrounded by vans and trucks of several media companies that turned the streets of TriBeCa into photographer-and-reporter galore. As students walked down the moderated path leading towards train stations, many of us noticed the press all around—specifically, the men and women that were trying to take photos of us as we passed. Many of my friends and I covered our faces from the flashbulbs. We did not ask to be photographed, and we did not want to be.

Even the next day, a photographer had his camera pointed at such an obscure detail as our shoes, recording us all as we walked past him.

Be it a staff member or student, everyone at Stuyvesant experienced the attack either directly or indirectly, and the feelings that we have about it may be extremely personal. However, when media companies take photos of us without our consent, they bring our own private spheres out into the public. They violate our comfort in a place where we should feel motivated to learn. These are not simply individual headshots of a student or two; they are large-scale depictions of our student body.

Terrorism is meant to incite fear, but a photograph showing that all Stuyvesant students are frightened and nervous victims does not tell the truth: we are indeed shocked, but not weak.

The first photograph of Sayfullo Saipov (the Uzbekistani man who committed the attack) was released on the night it happened. His dull mugshot was the icon of nearly every single news channel that night. The most troubling part about this photograph is how little important information it gives us; all we see is the color of his skin and the fact that he has a long, black-haired beard—nothing else.

I don’t believe that releasing his picture to the general public will benefit anyone. The only purpose of this photograph should have been to help keep his face recorded on a federal level. Past that, it allows us to unconsciously group together a skin color with Islam or a beard with terrorism. The reality, however, is that there is no such facial feature as the “Islamic” kind. Slowly but surely, the photograph of Saipov contributes to sweeping generalizations about millions of Muslim people across the world. At this point, Islamophobia worsens at all costs.

Consider political activist Laura Loomer, who enraged the twittersphere when she posted pictures of two hijabi women walking on Chambers Street and blamed them for simply being in the area where the attack happened.

Photographs in the media are full of ideas and messages that we sometimes digest without even an ounce of conscious thought. Nonetheless, they are effective. A photograph should be a positive change in and of itself. But reporters and the media only seem to want to capture the grim and the grit, and this is the seemingly unfixable problem.

In a week from now, the media might be scrambling to tell another more “important” story. By then, the violent attack on our community will likely just become old news, tangled within a jumble of exploitative photographs, thousands of news articles, and Islamophobic media.