‘The Taste’s Nigella Lawson’s Husband Might Have Choked Her. Should Photographers Have Intervened?

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Frequent food television host and food writer Nigella Lawson found herself on the front page of British tabloids over the weekend when paparazzi photographs appeared to capture her husband, advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, with his hand on her throat at a London restaurant. This isn’t the first time that Saatchi has appeared to behave less than well to Lawson in public. There’s a 2012 photograph of him putting his hand over her mouth while they’re at an outside table at a restaurant, both with expressions on their faces that make it hard to tell if what’s passing between them is nasty, or a bit of private theater that might be misunderstood. But the image of Saatchi seeming to choke Lawson is much more decidedly disturbing image, and though Lawson hasn’t filed criminal charges yet, Scotland Yard is investigating the incident.

It’s also raised questions about whether the celebrity photographers who captured images of the events should have intervened to help Lawson. The debate over whether photographers and other journalists should be willing to take action after they’ve photographed people in danger, or whether they should take action rather than photograph people in danger, is hardly limited to paparazzi, or to situations where violence is imminent or occurring. Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who captured the galvanizing image of a small, starving girl being stalked by a vulture in Sudan during the terrible famine there, was sharply criticized for not making sure that the girl reached a feeding center, though he did reportedly chase away the vulture watching her. In other words, this sort of reaction isn’t just limited to celebrity gossip or to the much-reviled paparazzi. Perhaps because photography is so visceral, it’s hard for some audiences to see images of an obviously news-worthy event like the Sudan famine, shot by a hard news photographer, and understand why someone would capture images rather than try to save a starving child, even if photographing that child will do important, long-term good in terms of mobilizing public action and changing public opinion.

But while it’s easy to think that the paparazzi should step in, even if we don’t like to acknowledge that they might be bound by journalistic ethics not to intervene, however loose, it’s harder to tell if, in Lawson’s case, they actually could have done any good. The photograph of Saatchi’s hand on Lawson’s throat is frightening. It captures her choked expression, her face filling the frame. But that doesn’t mean the person who took it was actually close to her, just that they had access to good telephoto lenses. By the time they put down a camera, got into the restaurant (where they might not have been allowed in any case), and attempted to intervene on Lawson’s behalf, Saatchi could have taken his hands off her, or already done whatever harm he intended to do. In the interim, there were people in the restaurant with Saatchi and Lawson, some of whom have already talked to the press about how upsetting it was to witness the incident, and who might have been in better proximity to intervene on Lawson’s behalf if they thought she was in real danger. It’s fun to talk about the evils of the paparazzi. But when domestic violence, if that is indeed what this proves to be, takes place in public, bystanders, not just photographers, have obligations as decent human beings, too.