WINNIE THELETSANE: Searching for a dead woman's picture - a journo's predicament
So a body is found, be it in Tokai Forest, Kuils River or Soweto, and it is a woman's.
In a typical newsroom situation, the first thing that happens is someone will quickly write a piece on it. It will go on air and police will say they are investigating.
For an online producer, this is one of many stories we edit and upload. Another dead woman, followed by another social media outcry, with another investigation.
When you are in the journalism industry and 90% of the news that lands in your inbox are murders, fatal accidents, rape, and children caught in the middle of arguments they don’t even understand – these stories feel like they have no impact on you. They are your job. You do them – you get to put bread on the table and pay the bills.
In the beginning, you are a little scared. It is shocking that a woman has been raped, killed and dumped in the bushes somewhere like a piece of nothing. You go home and wonder how safe you are. You go to sleep after checking the door a million times to make sure it is locked and the windows are shut. You make sure that at least one person knows that you are in bed and ready to shut down after a long day at work.
In the beginning, it is emotionally draining, nerve-wracking, even. For most people, the stories about children are the most difficult.
“Toddler beaten to death for farting”, “Boy drowns trying to cross a flooded river”, “Father kills baby during argument with mother”, “Daycare owner arrested for molesting kids” – they make your body shiver. They make you question the safety of your own children, your future children, your sister’s children and all the adorable little people around you.
It is a cruel world and somebody has to report on it. It is a heartless society and somebody has to take pictures of it. It is a disgusting world and somebody has to ask the cops what they are doing about it – just for a sound clip – not that they care.
And over time, it becomes part of your life. You wake up, prepare to go to work, get in your car or take a taxi and head to your desk in the loud newsroom. There are beautiful people in that office, people with families and serious future plans. They are full of smiles, life and all things bright. But those same people, when they hear there was an accident on the N1, have to first ask: How many people died? They have to make editorial calls like: "It’s not lead material if only one person died, maybe if it was 10."
So you get to work and a woman’s body has been found. Someone has already done the story – someone who is not even sad about it. Fast forward two days or a week later and you get to do the follow-up story. “Two arrested for so-and-so’s murder, rape”. You go with that headline because it is straight to the point and captures everything there is to say about someone’s murdered mother.
Your website has been using one picture of this person for the past week as the story developed and now that it is your turn to do the story, your editors feel the need to get a new picture because she/he anticipates many more angles from "this body was found".
Thanks to social media for putting faces to the dead women. For humanising someone’s sister, daughter, aunt and role model.
It’s an easy task: you type her name in Facebook or on Twitter and boom! She has an account. You scroll through her pictures to find a "nice" one. One that makes her look like a human being and not what she has been degraded to. One that captures her smile and will remind her loved ones of her kind heart. But most importantly, you choose one that will go with your cropping dimensions. If it’s a landscape it will work perfectly, vertical ones normally pose a small challenge.
It is in that moment when you arrive home and finally get to reflect on your day. Typically, it is when the television is off, the phone is far away, and there is no conversation taking place. Alone with your thoughts, you remember that the dead woman’s pictures you were browsing through were of an ACTUAL PERSON. Someone who had a family, a career and their whole future laid out. That you went through her social media accounts like you were browsing for a handbag or hotels for your next vacation. “This one is kinda nice”, “Nah this one won’t work”, “I can definitely work with this one”… as you clicked on the ‘next’ button making your own little slideshow.
It’s sad, this side of us, newsroom dwellers, storytellers. But like I said, somebody has to do it. Somebody has to put a face to the dead woman. Somebody has to choose a nice picture.
I’m that somebody. Because I’m fuelled by the love for my fellow women who didn’t have anyone to protect them and I refuse to now let them be faceless just because they were robbed of their futures. I’m fuelled by the look in my father's eyes when he had to tell me that he wouldn't be able to afford my second-year tuition fees and that unless I got a bursary, I'd have to come back home so he can settle the first year's fee. I’m fueled by my mom's hope that the little girl she raised, is making a positive impact on society.
So, I come here every day and put faces to the dead women, and I choose a picture where she looked her happiest. Even though I never knew her, and never will.
Winnie Theletsane is a sub-editor at Eyewitness News.