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Bystander Effect Essay

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Submitted By sahan27
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Not My Problem
The September 11th 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was one of the most violent events that occurred in America in the past decade. People were horrified and shocked when they first learned that one of America’s most famous buildings had been attacked. It was a day where the entire country was in a state of mourning over those individuals who lost their lives in this catastrophic attack. Ironically, Thomas Hoepker’s photograph captures a group of five individuals casually observing this tragic attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 with no display of concern or grief. These individuals appear as if they are not worried about the thousands of lives that were lost on that sad day. At first glance, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is that these five individuals appear to be desensitized to violence. However, through further analysis we learn that these individuals are not desensitized to this violence but in fact feel a different sense of responsibility to express their feelings in the presence of others.
Thomas Hoepker’s photograph shows a group of five individuals under the sun in a park near Brooklyn while a dark grey cloud of smoke fills the sky behind them as a result of the two buildings being under attack. The body postures of the individuals show that they acknowledge the disaster that is occurring behind them but that they appear to ignore this violence. The woman lying on her back is shown to be very oblivious of the situation at hand. The body posture of this woman shows that she is detached from her surroundings. It is as if she is more concerned about enjoying herself in the sun rather than expressing emotions of concern and grief. Additionally, the man to the left of her is sitting in such a way that directs his attention towards the woman rather than the burning building behind him. He is seated in a position with relaxed shoulders reinforcing the idea that any event occurring that does not personally involve him does not alarm him. This reveals that the man’s primary interest is hearing what the woman has to say. A casual viewer of this image would expect to see at least some body language that communicates a sense of shock or surprise. However, none of the individuals in the photograph seem to stand up with a stiff back to show their attentiveness or worry. Looking at this photograph, these five individuals seem ignorant of the tragic disaster that is occurring behind them and as they are seen focus their attention towards themselves.
The first impression this photograph creates is the idea that these individuals are desensitized to violence. This concept is supported by Vivian Sobchack’s text “The Postmorbid Condition”. Her text discusses the concept of “careless violence” and how the American society has been overexposed to violent events through films (Sobchack 431). Sobchack asserts the idea that this overexposure to violence has led to the desensitization of the American society as evidenced by how the five individuals in the photograph are not disturbed by the violence occurring behind them. The man in the black shirt, along with the woman in white and the man in the orange shirt appear to portray a sense of apathy towards the disaster which shows that violence may be an “omnipresent phenomenon” to these individuals. This suggests that these five individuals do not feel the need to react to the violence behind them in a form of shock or surprise because, as supported by Sobchack, they have been numbed to violence to such an extent that even a major tragedy like the attack on the World Trade center is not enough to evoke any emotional response from them. It is as if the presence of violence is simply a minor detail in their lives that does not distract them from their normal activities such as sitting in a relaxed position under the hot sun.
Interestingly, further analysis of the image shows that the individual’s lack of expressive behavior towards the violence behind them is as a result of these individuals being in the presence of others. This is supported by James Hudson’s bystander theory that emphasizes that group’s act differently compared to individuals as a result of the diffusion of responsibility. The image shows five individuals witnessing the violence and, consequently, each individual feels as though he or she has “limited responsibility” for their inaction (Hudson 170). This shows that the presence of multiple individuals, as seen in the photograph, lowers their responsibility to express their grief or concern. This limited responsibility can be observed by the body postures of the individuals in the photograph. Individuals, such as the woman lying on her back, adopt a body posture that is relaxed because she feels as though she does not need to express her emotions in front of the other individuals. This diffusion of responsibility “inhibits her from acting” because the “negative consequences” of her inaction are drastically reduced (Hudson 170). This suggests that the woman lying on her back lowers her personal consequence of not reacting to the violence, which results in her lethargic body posture of lying down as shown in the photograph. Furthermore, Hudson asserts that the “inaction of others” will cause the “inaction of the individual” (170). In the photograph we see the man in the black shirt looking towards the woman lying on her back. The woman lying on her back is doing so because she is trying to mimic the body posture of the man in the black shirt who has relaxed shoulders. The other individuals in the photograph are all seen to be looking at one another and this results in individuals influencing each other to appear relaxed and apathetic to the violence behind them. Additionally, Hudson writes about a study that was conducted which concluded that the probability of an individual in an emergency situation being helped “decreases as the number of bystanders increases” (169). Although the individuals are not near the scene of the violence, the study provides further evidence for the idea that individuals react differently when they are part of a group as opposed to when they are alone. Although on first glance the individuals in the photograph appear to be desensitized to the violence behind them, they are merely reacting in such a way due to the fact that others are present.
However, the criticism of the five individuals who appear to be apathetic to the violence behind them assumes that they are capable of understanding the true nature of this attack on the buildings. It could be that these individuals react in an apathetic fashion because they are not capable of comprehending how serious this attack on the buildings is. This idea, supported by Barrie Greenbie, introduces a concept that suggests that the true nature of the violence that is taking place is unfathomable to the individuals because they have no empirical relationship with the occurring violence. Barrie Greenbie’s text “Home Space: Fences and Neighbors” discusses the concept of a “haptic system” which is a method of obtaining information through physical touch and presence. Greenbie gives an example that states that it is not possible to comprehend what “walking on the moon” is like unless an individual has physically experienced it (250). Similarly, the social distance presented in the photo between the burning building and the five individuals suggests that there is no possible way for the individuals to comprehend the seriousness of the violence taking place due to their physical detachment from the situation. The camera is very close to the individuals and, consequently, the main focus of the image is so far away from the violence that is taking place that they do not receive any information about the violence through their tactile senses. Due to this social distance presented in the photograph, the individuals are left to visualize the violence through their imagination. This lack of empirical evidence of the violence allows individuals to “imagine anything they want” (Greenbie 251). The physical distance between the violence and the individuals leads to an “imaginative physical contact” which cannot compare to the actual sensations obtained through real physical contact with the violence (Greenbie 251). This visualization that the individuals rely on to comprehend the nature of the violence is highly abstract and does not allow for the true nature of the situation to be experienced, leading to an inability of the individuals to understand the actual degree of violence occurring.
Although there are multiple reasons as to why the five individuals appear to be apathetic to the violence behind them, as supported by Sobchack, Hudson and Greenbie, they cannot escape the fact that they did not express any emotion to one of the most disastrous events in recent history, the attack on the World Trade Center. This unusual behavior is captured by Thomas Hoepker’s photograph which shows how, sometimes, even during a time as catastrophic as the attack on the World trade Center, there are individuals who will express concern and grief in different forms. This leads to the question, why did Thomas Hoepker decide to take the time to capture this photograph in the midst of the violence instead of mourning and grieving himself? Thomas Hoepker’s efforts to capture the apparent apathetic behavior presented in the image have led him to be viewed as expressing grief in a different form as well. Perhaps the decision to capture this photograph was even more unusual than the fact that the individuals in the photograph were irresponsive to the violence. It is as if Thomas Hoepker and these five individuals are trying to make the statement that there is more than one way to react to violence. To them, what happens before the violence happens after the violence, nothing changes and life goes on. Image link: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/9/2/1314964814888/Young-people-chat-as-the--005.jpg
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Works Cited
Greenbie, Barrie B. "Home Space: Fences and Neighbors.” Readings for Analytical Writing. 3rd ed.Christine Farris, Christopher Basgier, Harmony Jankowski, Carter Neal, Andy Oler, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. 246-258. Print.
Hoepker, Thomas. The Fall of the Twin Towers, 2001, Photograph Magnum, New York. Oxfordleftreview.com.Web. 18th Nov 2013.
Hudson, James M., and Amy S. Bruckman. "The Bystander Effect: A Lens for Understanding Patterns of Participation." Journal of the Learning Sciences 13.2 (2004): 165-195. Print.
Sobchack, Vivian C. "The Postmorbid Condition.” Readings for Analytical Writing. 3rd ed.Christine Farris, Christopher Basgier, Harmony Jankowski, Carter Neal, Andy Oler, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. 429-433. Print.…...

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