The Paparazzi Reflex

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About a week ago, I caught a glimpse on “CBS This Morning”[i] of a clip of Prince Harry talking about his mother’s, Diana’s, death. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized we were collectively coming up to the 20th-year anniversary (August 31, 1997). Prince Harry was 12 years old when his mother died and I distinctly remember pictures of him walking behind her coffin as part of the funeral procession.

Speaking about the night of her death, he said, “I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people that chased her into the tunnel were the same people that were taking photographs of her while she was still dying on the back seat of the car.” According to CBS news, “he not only blamed the paparazzi for the crash that killed his mom, but accused them of standing by and watching her die, reports CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti.”[ii]

As I watched Prince Harry speak about how the people who caused the crash ended up the ones taking pictures, the first thing that came to my mind didn’t happen twenty years ago; it happened a month ago. I thought about Obdulia Sanchez, the 18-year-old who live-streamed the crash that killed her sister, Jacqueline. She videoed before, during and after the crash, including of herself in front of her sister’s dead body. Charged with driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter, she has pleaded not guilty.[iii]

As I thought about people standing around and watching Diana die, I remembered something that happened, again, not twenty years ago but about a month ago. In Florida, a group of teens stood by and watched 31-year-old Jamel Dunn drown, while they joked and videotaped his last moments of life.[iv] The teens have not been charged because “the state of Florida currently does not have a law where a citizen is obligated to render aid or call for help for anyone in distress.”[v]

In her video, Obdulia Sanchez screams at her dead sister to “wake up!” The teens could be heard on their video taunting Jamel Dunn “that he was ‘going to die’ and they were not going to help him. At one point, one of the teen boys could be heard laughing, saying ‘he dead.’” [vi] Both incidents have gone viral, producing collective outrage. Of the Florida drowning, Cocoa Police Department spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez said, “I’ve been doing this a long time, probably 20 years or more . . . I was horrified.”[vii]

Twenty years ago, the world, including a 12-year-old boy, was horrified at the actions of a group of people, known as paparazzi, who callously captured images. Twenty years later, we’re still horrified, except, this time, the paparazzi aren’t professionals; they are an 18-year-old woman and a group of five teen boys, between the ages of 14 and 16.[viii]

What’s at work here? Is it the technology? Is it the age of those involved? Is it simply the reach of the Internet to bring to light these stories that provoke such outrage and horror? Is it all three, or, possibly more? Is there a reason to be worried about a slippage in the compassion that acts as a glue for community?

The teenage boys involved in Florida have not been identified so can’t tell us what they were thinking. Obdulia Sanchez did speak in a jailhouse interview and said, “Like, trust me, like, it’s like a reflex . . . everybody does it. Everybody does it. They take Snapchats. Everybody does it. Why not? People take video of them in cars like all the time. And I’m only 18 – we’re still young.”[ix]

To this generation of digital natives, live-streaming, posting to platforms, is as natural as breathing. For teenagers today, videoing is like a reflex. What about compassion?

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.