Cell Phone Voyuerism: When Users Capture Tragic Events

In September, five friends hiking in the New Jersey woods came across a 300-pound bear. According to a News 12 New Jersey report, bear sightings in that area are "common." Todd Majka, a resident of the area, said, "You're in bear country. If you come up here to go hiking, you should be prepared. You should have, you know, air horns and bear mace. You're walking in their back yard."

Walking in the bears' back yard, the five friends did not have air horns or bear mace; they had cell phones. This past week, authorities released cell phone photos of the bear taken by Darsh Patel, one of the five. Darsh Patel became the first person to be killed by a bear in New Jersey. "The police report said that the young hikers attracted the bear's attention by taking the nature shots, according to The Record of Hackensack."

When I read this story, my first thoughts were, why did they stop to take pictures? Why didn't they run? The five friends eventually did run, fanning out in different directions to escape the bear. When they gathered back together, one of them was missing. Darsh Patel's body was later found, with the bear still nearby. The bear was, per the News 12 story, "euthanized." Instead of using items to protect them from bears, the five used cell phones, which, apparently, attracts bears.

Cell phones have become an essential technological appendage. Like many people, I become anxious if my cell phone is not within reach. I use it to communicate; I use it for information; I also use it to take pictures. I use my cell phone, in other words, to navigate my world. This story got me thinking about how people use their cell phones and the potential assumptions that accompany that usage. Darsh Patel and his friends, when confronted with the bear, did something that should be counter-intuitive; instead of vacating the area, they remained and made themselves noticeable by taking pictures. I wonder if cell phones allow us to withdraw into a false zone of anonymity, becoming chroniclers of life -- spectators instead of participants. Darsh Patel and his friends thought they were spectators of a bear sighting before realizing they were really participants in a very dangerous situation.

Reading this story made me think about others. In October 2011, a series of blasts hit the Indian city of Mumbai. In the aftermath, in the carnage and chaos, "most people were busy taking pictures on their cell phones instead of helping out." In December 2012, Ki Suk Han was pushed to his death on a New York subway. The moments of death were captured by a New York Post freelance photographer who came under fire. "Critics say he chose to snap the disturbing pictures instead of helping Mr. Han." Granted, those controversial pictures were not taken by a cell phone but they were taken by a person who made his living as a chronicler of life.

About a year ago, Irma Lopez Aurelio went to a medical clinic in Mexico, extremely pregnant. For unclear reasons, she was turned away. A rather sarcastic rendition of the incident at thestir.com gives this additional twist, "So she went outside and waited. And waited. And waited. Until she gave birth on the clinic lawn. Oh, and then a kind bystander snapped a photo of her with her newborn still attached to the umbilical cord, and it wound up on a magazine cover." The writer, Nicole Fabian-Weber, goes on to ask, "Who, in their right mind, would take a photo like this?"

That's exactly the question asked in Mumbai, asked of the New York Post photographer. That's exactly the question I asked about Darsh Patel. Is our "right mind" shifting? Are we becoming so accustomed to our ability to chronicle life that we now neglect to engage in it, to the detriment of ourselves and others?