Sunday National, 28th June 2020.
I don’t know who was behind the camera. I don’t want to know. But walking along West George Street on Friday, someone saw a seriously injured man, the pavement red with his blood, and decided to whip out their mobile, and share his picture with the world. The shot bounced around on social media, alongside images of armed policemen and the huge bank of lights and sirens outside the Park Inn hotel in Glasgow. This weekend, some newspapers have published – partially pixelated – aerial shots of Police Constable David Whyte lying prone on the pavement, having intervened in the knife attack. The officer is reportedly in “critical but stable” condition in hospital – which is a mercy.
The paradox of the lens is that it is at once capable of being powerfully humanising, and powerfully dehumanising. Every day, millions of people are moved by photographs and film to greater empathy and understanding by the images and stories they tell. But as smartphones transform every pedestrian with thumbs into an “embedded content producer” – and as news organisations’ hunger for this kind of contemporaneous shots intensifies – chancing across the kind of terrible event we saw in Glasgow this week represents an opportunity for a brief and very modern kind of notoriety if the social media user is vain or conscienceless enough to grasp it.
Take it back to basic ethics. I just can’t understand the moral imperative which says “you know, I think I should film this.” “Oh look, a seriously wounded man. Just let me adjust the filters here and take the shot.”
If it was you lying there, what do you think you would make of the strangers who regarded your brush with death as an irresistible social media opportunity? If you recognised the face of a family member or a friend lacquering the stone red, their breath sore and thin and failing – would you be so keen then to share your impromptu war photography with the world then? And why are some of us so seemingly inured to how inappropriate this is? What makes it so difficult to imagine yourself living through someone else’s worst day? Would you want your parents or your kids to see you like that? Don’t other people deserve equal concern and respect?
Yes, it is the truth. The bleeding, terrible truth. But how much of the enthusiasm for capturing moments like these is animated by a real commitment to communicating to the public what has happened? How much of the impulse to press “record” comes from any respect for the dignity of the people who find themselves caught up in such a terrible situation? I have serious doubts.
This isn’t documenting police brutality against detainees like George Floyd. This isn’t capturing crimes against humanity so the guilty can face a final reckoning. It is puerile. It is voyeurism. Turning the mortal peril other people find themselves in into your social media moment speaks to an appallingly superficial relationship with your fellow creatures.
Other forms of dehumanisation were also abroad yesterday. As half-truths, half-insights and half-information fanned out from West George Street on Friday, and the armed police and press descended on the Park Inn Hotel, it was remarkable how rapidly people began promoting their preferred versions of what had happened, and who and what was responsible. Ultimately inaccurate reports of the number of victims killed circulated across the mainstream media, with reporters running around like wet hens to meet the hysterical demands of instant reporting and instant reaction which – as too often happens – ended up amplifying misinformation and platforming bozos with agendas and limited curiosity about how far the facts align with their prejudices. This is a gratuitous and unnecessary. What’s the point in winning the race to publish first, if what you’re publishing is wrong?
Even in outline, the story emerging from West George Street is horrific and troubling. When things like this happen on streets you’ve walked yourself, in buildings you might walk past daily into work, their resonance is somehow greater than on a strange street in another city.
But the interventions of corrosively cynical political actors determined to recruit this story to peddle their own agendas, whatever the facts prove to be are beyond tawdry, beyond contemptible. Without even the edges of the jigsaw completed – without half the facts you’d need to make half-informed conclusions – “people with reasonable concerns about immigration” were doing their darndest to recruit the event to their cause.
Their twitter feeds were shot through with undecorated racism and islamophobia, harping again and again on the idea asylum seekers somehow bear collective guilt and collective responsibility for what this man did and died for on Friday. This argument must be resisted, its double standards and humbug mercilessly called out. Such scumbag opportunism isn’t new to Glasgow. In 2004, when 15-year school boy Kriss Donald was snatched from the street in the Southside of the city and killed, Nick Griffin and the British National Party – remember them? – descended on Pollokshields in the hopes of making political capital out of the crime. Carrion crows then, carrion crows now.
We don’t know the full details of what happened on West George Street this week, and why it happened. In this paper, Karin Goodwin has detailed anxieties about how the Home Office have been housing refugees in this city for months. “Glasgow welcomes refugees” is a fine sentiment – but it is sentiment with hard work behind it, if it is to mean anything in practice to the people who come to remake their lives here. This means not only securing a decent standard of housing and living – but being realistic about the hard road which brought many of these people to our shores, and the consequences of that journey. Pope Francis described his vision of the church as a “field hospital.” Even in more secular terms, both body and spirits need tending. Britain is too often tight-fisted with both.
I began with one picture. I want to end by telling you about another. It is perhaps the most consequential photograph I’ve ever seen. In 1948, David “Chim” Seymour visited a Warsaw orphanage, housing children who had survived the holocaust and second world war. Lost parents, bombed homes, missing siblings – this was a place for kids who had seen and known much too much, much too young. Many were understandably troubled by what had become of their short lives. Tereska – perhaps seven or eight years of age – was one of the children Chim encountered.
The teacher had tasked the class with drawing the concept of “home”. While many of the children’s drawings featured reassuring fat little houses and nuclear families, Tereska’s vision of home was different. In the famous shot, the girl looks up at the camera, her expression troubled and troubling, glassy, somehow away with it, but it is her drawing which really arrests you. Her concept of “home” didn’t have a blobby mother and father in it. There was no outsize tree, or smiling sun, or wee dog on the lawn. Tereska’s vision of “home” was a fractured vortex of white lines, a jagged typhoon of chalk like bunches of barbed wire. When Chim’s remarkable picture was published in LIFE magazine, the caption read: “Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal.”