Since the tsunami hit, the mainstream press and, to a lesser extent, the broadcast and cable network news programs, have been chockfull of images of the freshly dead. We’ve seen images of bodies of children and adults where the water left them; we’ve seen them arranged in neat rows; we’ve seen them bagged and stacked.
Television broadcasts have, in the main, been more suggestive, less specific, more distant in their images than the print press: often you knew that lump was a dead body only because a chattering reporter told you it was. TV executives say that is because their images come into people’s homes where children might come upon them unawares, so they have to limit the reality on the airwaves. Hardly anyone believes they have the children in mind when they plan their programs.
What is perhaps more worthy of note than how many tsunami dead we’ve seen, however, is how many other recent dead we have not seen.
The mainstream media showed, for example, no blood and guts resulting from the 9/11 attacks. Most of the people murdered that day were pulverized or vaporized, but not all. Some of the most horrific images were the sidewalk remains of those who leapt from the World Trade Center’s upper stories before the structures collapsed. The New York Times published a photo of a man diving, his body almost tranquil in flight, the implications of the image horrific. But nothing at ground level. None of the print press and none of the mainstream electronic press published anything at ground level. You could find those images on some hard-to-find web sites: skin and heads with insides elsewhere, with bodies looking like punctured balloons.
Those images showed what every cop and combat soldier knows: violent death trivializes and shifts to someplace you do not want to go every single thing you ever thought about life. But the press-individually or in some collaborative council-decided those images were too much for you to bear, so (unless you roamed the web) you never saw them.
Likewise the carnage in the Holy Land. How many reports have you read of Palestinian bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies, perhaps with added layers of nails to provide extra shrapnel to maim and mutilate whoever wasn’t close enough to be killed outright? How many reports have you read of Israeli tanks blowing up inhabited buildings or nervous Israeli soldiers shooting down ordinary people on their way to work or children on their way to school? And how many Holy Land images of shattered bodies, of a hand, a jaw, an emptied skull, of guts draped over the hood of a car have you seen?
Likewise the carnage suffered by US troops in Iraq. You’ve read about the numbers of U.S. dead and mutilated, and perhaps (if you watch PBS “Newshour”) you’ve seen head and shoulders studio photographs of the most recently killed soldiers. But how many images how you seen of American soldiers dead on the road, their eyes and mouths open, if they still had eyes and mouths? How many images have you see of the limbs blown off the thousands of amputees now filling VA hospitals? How many images have you see of body parts blasted into the roofs and seats and floors of Humvees they hadn’t gotten around to armorplating?
And likewise the far greater carnage suffered by Iraqi civilians. A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet put the dead civilians resulting from the American war of choice in Iraq somewhere around 100,000. Critics say that is off by at least 100%: the US has killed only 50,000 Iraqi civilians, they say. The scholars who did The Lancet study say they were conservative in their numbers, that there are probably far more civilian dead who remain uncounted because there is no one responsible for counting them and no one interested in counting them. However you figure it, there are a huge number of Iraqis who died because of American violence, and a lot of Iraqis who died because of insurgent violence. For every dead Iraqi, how many mutilated Iraqis are there? Two? Five? Ten? Twenty?
Where are their pictures, those dead and mutilated Iraqis? How many images have you seen of Iraqi children blown to dripping pieces of flesh, puddles of blood, scattered white chunks of bone? How many images have you seen of Iraqis who have lost hands, feet, eyes, jaws when bombs when off, when machine guns fired, when mortars fell, when vehicles blew up?
You’ve gotten words about those American and Iraqi deaths and mutilations, but precious few images. The images are parked in the periphery of the information spectrum, on web sites hardly anyone visits. Time doesn’t publish them, and neither does Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post or the Buffalo News. You won’t see them on CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, or CNN.
Why? Because the daily press and evening news are so attuned to our sensitivity or sensibility they just don’t want to offend us? Because their editors are old and literary enough to be crippled by T.S. Eliot’s fey line, “Humankind cannot stand very much reality?” Or because they just don’t want us to know what the words they hurl at us are really about?
I’ll tell you how powerful pictures are in a world of words. Three photographs changed American opinion about the Vietnam war: Eddie Adams’s photograph of Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing the brains out of a handcuffed prisoner on a Saigon street, Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc Phan Thi running naked down a Vietnamese road after her skin had been burnt off by napalm, and Ronald Haeberle’s photographs of the slaughter at My Lai. People in the U.S. saw those images and they said, “What the fuck are we doing there? Who are we when we can be doing things like that?” Those images trumped the politicians’ words.
Think about what the Abu Ghraib jpgs did to American opinion about the war in Iraq. They’re clumsy, low-res, amateur tourist photographs of ordinary folks having a little fun torturing some other folks nobody (they’d been told) cares about. And those low-res jpgs blew the cover off what the U.S. was really doing to Iraqis, what the U.S. government really thought about Iraqis. After those photos became commonplace, who-other than those idiots and ideologues who have shut off the upper stories of their brains-can look you in the eye and say, “We are in Iraq to make life better for Iraqis?”
But it is less and less likely that we’ll have an Eddie Adams or Nick Ut or Ron Haeberle showing us what we need to see to understand what we’re really doing in Iraq. During the US invasion of Iraq, almost all press photographers were imbedded, dependent on U.S. military support for their survival. (Unembedded press sometimes saw more than embedded press, but they had a far higher death rate.) Even with all the fancy technology that permitted a photographer on the ground to upload images directly to a satellite, few images that would piss off anyone in power ever made it off the ground, and the nearly all of the few that did were killed by editors stateside. Nowadays, photographers can’t go anywhere without a platoon of soldiers to protect them: they can’t roam the countryside, they can’t roam the streets of Baghdad or any other major Iraqi city. They don’t see very much and they are very careful about what they photograph, and their editors back home are even more careful about which of their images you and I get to see.
Which is why the heartbreaking images of all those innocent Pacific tsunami dead are doubly important.
First, those images help us understand the general and specific magnitude of disaster caused by the tsunami. The huge outpouring of aid would not have happened without those images.
Second, those images of tsunami death, destruction and anguish remind us of how little we are permitted to see of the death, destruction and anguish going on every day in the Holy Land and in Iraq and all the other places where raw power and greed have displaced decency and honor and human concern, all those places where weapons and violence substitute for reason and responsibility. Those images are surrogates for what we have become but have not permitted ourselves to see.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He edits the web journal Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org