January 1, 2005

The Benetton Problem (Among Others)

These are the lead images that ran in the LATimes and NYTimes last Tuesday (the second day of the Asian disaster).  I’ve been thinking about them all week. 



In my last “tsunami post,” I focused on why news photos generally don’t elicit emotional reactions.  However, I think there are a number of reasons why these images resist that effect.  One reason is because the catastrophe has been ongoing.  As such, the images continue to feel more immediate than historical, speaking of bodies still being found.  They also retain a “charge” because of the sheer magnitude of the disaster.  Each leap in the staggering death total can’t help but cause one to rescan the visual evidence anew.  Also, I think pictures like these can hold their resonance for as long as it takes for a person to get his or her mind around the event.  (This is probably why the the pictures have actually gotten stronger for me.) 

In previous posts, I’ve also talked about the depiction of corpses.  I think this second image is particularly powerful because some of the bodies — particularly the baby at the bottom middle left — show more realistic effects of the punishing waters.

The pictures also have power because of how large they’ve been printed.  For most of the week, the lead photos in both the LA and NYTimes were this large (see below).  In fact, it wasn’t until Friday — five days after the coverage started — that both papers reduced the width of their lead photos from five columns to four.  (Unfortunately, actual picture size is something I can’t recreate on-line considering my maximum width is only 400 pixels or 1.33 inches.)


In spite of their impact, however, even these images can’t withstand “the blunting effect.”  Before laying out some reasons why, I want to mention two items I came across earlier this week.

1.) Thursday night, during CNN’s disaster coverage, Anderson Cooper was excitedly reading emails sent in by American viewers offering to adopt Sri Lankan orphans.  Cooper then interviewed a representative of a support agency (I believe, Save The Children) who praised the offers but questioned their practicality.  The representative explained to a disappointed-looking Cooper that, rather than shipping these children off to America, it might make more sense to care for them locally — as her agency is equipped to do — at least until it could be determined if the parents were really dead.  But even if the parents could not be found, the spokesperson went on to explain, it would probably still be preferable to place these children with extended family, or, short of that, adopted families in Sri Lanka, where the children already live, speak the language, understand the customs, and have towns, neighborhoods, schools and friends.

2.)  In an article in Friday morning’s LATimes (“Tsunami Coverage Boosts CNN”), I read that CNN was closing the gap with FOX in the cable ratings on the basis of their coverage of the tsunami catastrophe.  According to the story, prime time viewing was up 26% on Sunday, 69% on Monday, and 89% on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in relating to these images involves what I would call “Anglo-European interference.”  When the typical news image tends to characterize the third world in terms of poor, helpless, dark-skinned people in misery, it makes it difficult to relate to these images coming out of South Asia in a more authentic way — with genuine sadness, for example, more than pity. (This also speaks to why some CNN viewers wouldn’t stop to think that children orphaned by the disaster might actually have people and services in their own country to meet their needs.)

Because the tsunami was felt from Africa to Asia, and from island to mainland, certainly a whole complex of cultural stereotypes come into play.  As one example, beyond the stereotype of the misery-ridden, dark-skinned people of the dark continent, there are also Gauguin-like impressions about “island people” in the Western mind.  Although still associated with poverty, these references are more connected with happiness and the idyllic.  So, in the mix might be included the sense that, if those simple folks in Banda Aceh had to die, at least they died in paradise.

These photos also have to contend with other Western appetites.  In the American love affair with violence and catastrophe, the American entertainment plate has been heaped full with helpings of disaster stories, many specifically involving earthquakes, floods and tidal waves.  Beyond that, last week’s event in Asia is eerily reminiscent of current themes and settings in some of America’s most popular recent television shows.  With this kind of loading, you have to wonder exactly how the process takes place which designates that this tsunami was not just a Sumatran spin off of the “Lost” or “Survivor” program (especially for those hooked on the “all tsunami all the time” CNN version of the saga).

Other “distracting” features of these photos are the rich colors and references to style.  In the same way CNN can’t help but view the crisis in human as well as commercial terms, so does the American eye.  And, in truth, these pictures are as lush in materiality and sensuality as they are tragic and grotesque.  Besides the rich colors and patterns, they are laden with some of the most desirable objects American’s identify with Asia, including fabrics, garments, blankets, and rugs.  In this regard, although it might be ugly to say, these images are not that far removed from Benetton ads.  But after all, what’s really surprising about that?  For years, Benetton and other companies have been cleverly and creatively setting up these associations, merging the lines between advertising and photojournalism, and between race, culture and fashion. (LINK.)

In our increasingly slick commercial culture, in which the flow of images increasing aim to seduce and objectify (where they would otherwise educate and inform), it seems that the ability to preserve the reality — not to mention, the dignity — of these kinds of photos is rapidly eroding.  And who know how far this can go? 

Perhaps, the next time such a tragedy occurs, I could lead off a similar deconstruction by observing that, while orange was really popular last season, it’s the pink and purple that’s making the bigger splash this time around. 

(image 1: Gautam Sing/AP in New York Times; image 2:  Bay Ismoyo — AFP/Getty Images in LA Times)

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Michael Shaw
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