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Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Picture isn't Everything

The earthquake from Nepal has been on the local news and it's all about Bath residents phoning home to say they're safe. There was a live report from someone's front room supposedly showing the mother getting the son's safety message. Now they're arriving home and the cameras at the airports

On the national news it's all been about Everest and reports about how many Britons are still missing and first-hand accounts. From a UK perspective Nepal is all mountains and trekking, probably because when people from the UK go to Nepal that's what they do for the most part.

It's a lazy manufacturing of empathy through choosing experiences we can easily understand - because we know people who have gone trekking, or stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu, or been in a restaurant. It's condescending really, and lazy, a general failure to frame what the earthquake might mean to such a rural, mountainous, landlocked, infrastructure-free nationand the people who live there.

But manufacturing a story within a familiar framework is what it's all about.  We've just had the alive-after-5-days story and we can await the inevitable person-rescued-after-10-days narrative to pop up. And it will be uplifting and bring tears to the eyes, but really... Nepal, China, Haiti, Turkey, Pakistan, they're almost interchangeable. I can't tell them apart anymore.

The need of a tale of salvation or redemption has almost become a condition of any disaster. The sickly tsunami film, The Impossible,  does this. When I watched it, despite my better judgement, that story of family salvation against all the odds got the tear ducts going. The rabidly conservative Bambi/Private Health Care subtexts were another matter and all part of what made it such an objectionable film. But the salvation was the thing, and for saps like me, it worked.

One disaster that lacked that redemption was the most spectacular one of all, 911. Here the spectacle conquered all. And, from my distant emotionally uninvolved point of view, still does.

It seemed like there was an attempt to reclaim the humanity from the spectacle through the identification and beafication of the Falling Man (or the passengers and crew of Flight 93). But it never quite worked or if it did, it was only temporary. Instead the pictures of these horrors became part of the spectacle and never quite escaped it.

It's always a problem for 911, that for all the heroics and the bravery, you never escape the fact that it looks exactly like a disaster movie complete with panicking city dwellers running while casting glances back over their shoulders.

There were objections to the Falling Man picture and it's not shown anywhere near as often as it once was. Nor are the clips of distant people jumping, nor is any of it.

But these objections are selective. Jumping pictures are thick on the ground in the history of photography (this Brussels fire and the Boston fire escape collapse.and here's the Budapest suicide and there's Okinawa...) and if it's not press photos of people jumping, then it's art projects with people jumping or looking like they're jumping. It's a short cut to a belly swirl.

And most of the time we see people jumping, it's a kind of photographic rubber necking. It doesn't really touch me or move me but I look all the same - it's like looking at a car crash. Perhaps we should drop the pretence of ethics and just admit it for what a lot of photography is; photographic rubber-necking, where there's no claim to empathy, or evidence or mourning. I find that preferable to hypocritical and selective hand-wringing.

The manufacturing of hope through generic survival tales is close to rubber necking, but maybe more objectionable. It gives us the ability to experience empathy and get tears in our eyes without making any leap of the imagination into what has really happened. It is applying a Hollywood narrative to a global disaster and making it generic.

I wonder if the real horror memory of the Twin Towers wasn't something that was seen (the visuals were spectacular and I still can't take my eyes off them even now - in the same way I can't take my eyes off tsunami footage). The real horror of 911 did come from those jumping off the towers, but it wasn't the images of the people falling that got me, but the sound of those poor people hitting the glass and the ground. There was nothing Disaster movie about that, it was far too physical and violent and real and it sent shivers down my spine even though not a body was too be seen.

Pictures are never everything. Something else might tell the story better.

Maybe that's the case in Nepal, but what that something else is there I don't really know. Like I don't really know anything about what happened there 5 days ago or what is happening there now. The story simply isn't being told.

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