January 9, 2005

Fashion of the Times


The other day, I was speculating as to whether the South Asia disaster story would have legs.  The kind featured in this photo in Saturday’s NYTimes, however, was not what I was referring to. 

In a post last Thursday ("The Events of December 26th, 2004), I described my initial doubts about the longevity of this story.  At the time, though, I had the feeling (or, perhaps, had managed to convince myself) that this event was taking on unusual significance.   In analyzing TIME’s magazine cover, the layout suggested the tsunami might be acquiring symbolic status.  In morphing from a tsunami to "The Tsunami," I felt the global humanitarian reaction to it might usher a shift in tone and attitude, in which the U.S., Europe and it’s geopolitical adversaries might be inspired to retrofit international priorities with a more humanitarian focus.  As well, I suggested this world shaking incident had the potential to succeed 9/11 as a paradigmatic event in the public consciousness.  (I wasn’t alone in this.  A week ago, commentators were applying this theme, or wish, across the political board.  The NYT Week In Review even ran a lead story titled "How Nature Changes History.") 

At this point, however, I’m back to being skeptical.  If you read my post from Friday ("George Bush: The Sequel"), I only had to listen to Colin Powell’s embarrassingly solicitous comments while in Asia — and remind myself of the entrenchment and intractability of Dick Cheney — to sober up.  Of course, it was also more than that.   A couple chance conversations I overheard about Lance Armstrong were also involved.  Armstrong is the champion cyclist who recovered from cancer to win another Tour de France.  The yellow wristbands that are showing up on wrists all over America are sold by his foundation in support of cancer research.  I laud Armstrong for the money he is helping raise to fight cancer.  On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the effort is primarily born on the wings of fashion.  The conversations I heard dealt less with the product’s attractiveness than with it’s attractive sales figures.  It’s purpose, however, earned no mentioned at all.

As civil strife starts up again in Aceh, and officials start to voice concern over whether donor nations make good on their "can you top this" relief pledges, I’m again wondering about the longevity of this story.  I don’t feel completely jaded, however.  Obviously, it’s continuity into a third week of prominence reflects its humanitarian impact.  I also imagine the tsunami (or, "The Tsunami") will have some effect in shifting policy and international relations.   The thing that worries me most about the story, however, more so than it’s disappearance, is it’s fashionability. 

Nothing is more fashionable in our culture than sex and violence, and the tsunami coverage in last Saturday’s Times covered both, top to bottom.  The top image depicted a tsunami victim taking a shower in a see through wrap.  The bottom image showed wrapped bodies of children and adults in a mass grave.


During the course of the tsunami coverage, there have only been a few photos I’ve seen covering the full width of a page.  I grant that this image has high aesthetic merit.  I also understand it’s value in expressing an experience of normality for a Sri Lankan women, Kodiali Dedumu, on the site of her demolished home.  That being said, here are a few questions I have: 

Did Ms. Dedumu know her picture was being taken?  If so, did she actually pose for it (and how was that arranged)?  If she was unaware, are there customs involving modesty that should have been considered?  Also: if Ms. Dedumu had been a Florida resident who’s home had been destroyed by the hurricane, what are the chances this picture still would have been published?  … And would it have been this large?

(Image: Chang W. Lee for NYTimes)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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