Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The 'hauntingly beautiful' death... of someone else

I haven't read much about the collapsed Bangladeshi factory where (to the relief of the world media) the significant milestone of 800 deaths was reached this afternoon. I haven't read much about it because the disaster is not exactly a surprising feature in a notoriously cruel world economy, the unfairness of which is a very poorly kept secret. When disaster strikes, media and society rush to pay brief attention to the need for some public soul-searching and profundity, thereafter returning to business-as-usual, convinced of our own goodness on account of the very public and very sentimental display of grief we've shown ourselves capable of. Well done us.

I'm only writing now because of this article, and the image that secured it. Most unsettling of all is the journalist who thought two dead human beings (and they suffered and died less than three weeks ago) looked "hauntingly beautiful" in their death position, which - conveniently enough - happens to look like an embrace. I find it even more unsettling that X number of editors left in the words "hauntingly beautiful" to describe a photo of the bodies of two recently dead human beings. "Hauntingly" and "beautiful" are two words that should never be used together in good writing, because they are frequently used together in bad writing. "Hauntingly beautiful" should never be used to describe the picture of two recently dead humans, because that gives the impression that dead humans can at least provide an aesthetically valuable commodity. The fact is that, beautiful or otherwise, nobody in their right mind gives a shit if a photo of recently dead people has a"haunting" effect on a journalist or audience, because people have died, and that ought be so much more significant that we shouldn't care how the photo of their death makes us living people feel for a little while.

I also think it's significant that these are two Bangladeshi bodies we are seeing buried beneath the rubble. In as much as this, it has all the hallmarks of the disaster photography genre, something that - either due to sensitivity or a lesser supply of disasters - is not peddled so enthusiastically where documenting western (read: white) victims of catastrophe. In this photo essay from the Haiti earthquake, we have the privilege of white doctors helping the helpless Haitians, who in other shots are hard at work with some pistol-toting looting. It likewise seems significant that the Bangladeshi photo has been taken and described by a Bangladeshi journalist, in the abstract, emotional but apolitical terms by which it is most easily digestible to the western audience.

The issue also makes me think of the New York Post front page, where the photograph of a man about to be hit by a train prompted a public debate on the sanctity of life and death, and the invasiveness of photography and media. Of course each case has its differences, significantly that the man on the New York subway was in America (although of Korean origin) and the dead man and woman in Bangladesh are Bangladeshi, one of the many darker-skinned and economically disadvantaged people who - in the world of a Time editor - swarm vaguely over most of the earth's surface. These people are required to sew our endless new clothes, or to assemble the increasing variety of computer devices our apparently growing sophistication seems to require. Occasionally, misfortune dictates that these people will die in photogenic disasters such as the one at the Bangladesh factory. "Hauntingly beautiful" as they are, these opportunities reliably prompt an outpouring of goldfish sadness, all the more worrying because people believe it to be sincere. The apparent grief and soul-searching is made sufficiently colossal that once again we can feel better about ourselves as a conscientious society, thereby recovering from the cause of the injustice without changing a thing.

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