July 15, 2020
Death From Covid and the Western Gaze

Photo: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters. Caption: The body of Valnir Mendes da Silva, 62, lies on a sidewalk in the Arara slum where he died after experiencing difficulty breathing, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Benfica, North Zone, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 17, 2020.

Death From Covid and the Western Gaze

This photo from Rio provides a view of poverty and the brutal outcome of the virus that just isn’t seen in America.

By Michael Shaw

I’ve been holding onto this newswire photo since May. Like a split-screen, what you’re looking at is a man lying dead in a poor Rio neighborhood juxtaposed with a man on a soccer field enjoying Brazil’s national pastime.

Last month, we published an article called “Here Are the Photos of People Suffering and Dying of Covid.“ The post was in response to the claim that such images weren’t being made and published in the United States. This photograph epitomizes another aspect of the problem. That is, the tendency for western media to sanitize images of suffering and death in America, or to largely avoid its depiction, while its more freely captured elsewhere.

First, the photo captures the kind of Covid denial and compartmentalization that we’ve been seeing in countries like Brazil and the U.S. since the virus was finally acknowledged. To deny something doesn’t require its complete disavowal. The hallmark of denial is the disconnection of a threat from its consequences. Using the fence to split the view, the picture calls out “business as usual” as countries either resist lockdowns or blithely re-open. At least, that was the story seven weeks ago before the so-called “first wave” of the coronavirus grew into a viral hurricane.

Second, the picture communicates in the most explicit terms how much more lethal the virus is to those living in poverty.

Finally, the photograph is an indictment of western media sensibilities. I’ve seen a constant stream of pandemic misery in news photos from Central and South America, and the developing world. But even as the poor, the homeless, and people secreted away in prisons in America are succumbing to the virus, I’ve hardly seen a photo from the States of a person suffering from the virus or a corpse that wasn’t carefully presented, most typically in a hospital or a funeral home.

Despite the double standard between more sanitized domestic images and more graphic ones from abroad, even this photo is conditioned for a western audience. I don’t think we would have even seen this image in America–the body bereft on the street and marked off by cones like a pothole–if not cushioned by the “split-screen.”

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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