Let’s Get Off on Reality

This is something I wrote for my photojournalism class, making an argument for citizen or participatory journalism (non-professional journalism) and against professional journalism in the context of the earthquake in Haiti.

We all get off on dead bodies.

(Photo Credit: Ricardo Arduengo/AP)

Or pictures of them at least.

Think about it. Images have become our new, socially acceptable form of pornography. Two weeks after disaster, we can’t get enough. Now it is almost two months after the fact, and when was the last time you saw a picture of Haiti?

On Tuesday, January 12th, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the country of Haiti, leaving thousands upon thousands of people dead, injured, and homeless. Unfortunately for Haiti, the island had almost no infrastructure, which resulted in the collapse of countless buildings, and the deaths of whole families, children, and central community members.

You and I live 3,201 miles away from this death, damage, and despair. There is virtually nothing we can do, except grin and bear the newspaper accounts of this terrible reality and wish there was something we could do.

The coverage of the Haiti earthquake was one of the most graphic instances of news coverage in U.S. history. Never before have we seen such blatant printing of dead bodies in U.S. news publications. But secretly, we all couldn’t get enough.

The truth is, pictures like these

(Photo Credit: Michael Appleton/NYTimes)

(Photo credit: Damon Winter/NYTimes)

(Photo Credit: Damon Winter/NYTimes)

make us cry. They make us wince. We become horrified, sick to our stomachs, depressed, motivated to help. Images like these give us an emotional connection to a situation that we have absolutely no control over. In fact, there are only two things the majority of us can do. We can feel: crying, praying, and empathizing comprise part of this category. And we can write a check. UNICEF, Red Cross, AmeriCares, and hundreds of other organizations and individuals including the President of the United States have collected millions of dollars. Money is our own special USA band-aid, one that we use to “fix” almost any situation. On the one hand, the journalistic coverage in Haiti is responsible for huge monetary relief efforts by the United States. On the other hand, we have just thrown millions of dollars at a country that has no system to receive or distribute this money in the way it needs to be distributed. And we have put our faith in organizations without making them accountable to anyone.

So while I think Pulitzer Prize images of suffering Haitians evoke emotion in a beautifully dramatic way and bring awareness to our daily lives of virtual ignorance, I think we need to rethink the way we ingest and interpret images and news.

For example, what if we gave cameras to Haitians. What if we gave them some pens and paper? What if we said, “Tell us your story and tell us what is important to you.” Maybe they would photograph their dead. Maybe they would also photograph the important buildings and businesses that they used to frequent that now lay in ruins. Maybe they choose to capture the religious ceremonies taking place in the aftermath. Perhaps they want to show children playing in the street despite having just lost their families and friends.

We know what destruction looks like. We don’t even need to read the newspaper to know destruction: all we have to do is turn on the TV and watch any generic violent action flick. What we never pay attention to and never care to know are the implications of destruction. Why was this earthquake so disastrous in the first place? What is the government doing to rebuild and aid the people? What will happen to people’s jobs now that buildings and offices have been destroyed? How will those members and leaders of the community who played critical roles in maintaining order be replaced? How have individuals been able to band together? What are the main obstacles to rebuilding? What implications does this earthquake have on development? What is happening to the children who have been orphaned? Is there law and order present?

None of us can answer these questions. Even Anderson Cooper could not give us these answers without asking the Haitian people first. So why do we need Anderson Cooper in the first place? Why not cut out the middle man, and let citizens do the talking for themselves. A Haitian running a fruit stand is not any less intelligent or capable of reporting on the reality of life than Anderson. Perhaps Anderson Cooper’s BA gets him an in at CNN, but as consumers do we really need our reporters to have a Yale education?

The recent earthquake in Chile did not provide us with much porn. In fact, the body count was very low relative to Haiti. However, just because there weren’t thousands of dead bodies to photograph doesn’t mean that people’s lives have not been affected. And it certainly does not mean that they do not have their own stories to tell.

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Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 11:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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