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A man collapsed at the airport, and I'm the only jerk who took a photo

Commentary: Watching a tragic event unfold at a Beijing airport check-in desk forced me to think about social media's role in bearing witness.


Behind this blue curtain of privacy, a man moans, quite possibly fighting for his life.

He collapsed a few minutes earlier with a terrible cry, and fell into convulsions right next to my check-in gate for a flight from Beijing to Seoul as part of a 19-day tour of seven cities in Asia.

When it happened, I glanced at the other shocked, worried faces around me. They read concern, not interest. They read quiet, not sensationalism. If this were the US, how many onlookers would have already whipped out their phones to take photos, or even video, of the distressing scene?

But this was an orderly check-in desk in China, and the only jerk contemplating the appropriateness of sharing this moment and its concerning implications was probably me.


Click to read more of Jessica's travels through Asia!

I'm just as invested as everyone else here, feel just as sick to press my passport into the gate agent's hand as she waves me up to the podium, business as usual, two feet from the blue curtain and the suffering stranger within.

As someone who constantly thinks about these things, the absence of phone cameras in this tense situation struck me. It got me thinking about the role of citizen journalism as a whole, especially for people who, like me, aren't hardened to extraordinary, or even everyday, tragedies.

There are benefits to documenting the brittle moments in human life. Like professional photojournalists' work, photos and videos captured by ordinary individuals can teach and inform, spark conversation, rally support and build emotional bridges.

But there are surely times when it's better to obey our own privacy screens and show respect through restraint. And perhaps, culturally in this place, the unfolding of this particular awful moment was one of them.

I fought with myself over whether to share this observation on phone use or not, and in the end I clearly chose the path of reflection. As a writer, it's my job to bear witness. As a fellow human, it's my responsibility to do so with compassion.