aestheticization

The media and the Manila hostage crisis: Preliminary notes

In the 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Merry takes Pippin to task for stealing the palantír of Orthanc from a sleeping Gandalf and gazing into it, an act that sets off a terrifying encounter with Sauron and places the Quest in peril. “Why did you look?” Merry rails. “Why do you always have to look?” When Pippin says that he cannot help himself, Merry retorts, “You never can.”

The eye may be helpless, as the poet Jorie Graham says, “when the image forms itself, upside-down, backward,/driving up into/the mind,” but when “the world/unfastens itself/from the deep ocean of the given”, ought I/eye resign myself to helplessness, content myself with merely looking on? Ought I/eye not to attempt a refastening, however small or ultimately futile the gesture?

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Newly arrived with a companion in Ayod—a village in the famine-stricken country of Sudan—and distressed by the sight of people starving to death, even as he sought to lend his efforts to an overwhelmed feeding center, the young man wandered into the open bush in order to try and calm himself. A soft, high-pitched noise caught his attention, prompting him to seek its source.

He traced the animal-like sound to a clearing, where he found an emaciated toddler—a little girl who was no more than skin and bones—whimpering pitifully. She was too weak to stand, and was crawling toward the very center he had just left. As he crouched before her, a vulture landed a short distance away, perhaps recognizing that, with a bit of luck, a meal was soon to be had.

The man would later recount that, in the wake of the appearance of the bird, he had waited about 20 minutes, hoping in vain that the scavenger would spread its wings.

Then, taking the utmost care not to disturb the tableau, the man raised his camera to his eye, meticulously framed his shots, and took several photographs.

Once he had finished with his pictures, he chased away the raptor, sat under a tree to smoke cigarettes, and talked—he claimed—to God, as he watched the gaunt little girl resume her struggle. He cried as well—according to his companion, when they reunited, the man was still wiping the tears from his eyes, saying he could not wait to go home, to see his own daughter, to embrace her.

The name of that man was Kevin Carter, and he was a South African photojournalist.

A little over a year after one of the images of the toddler and the vulture that he had taken was published in the New York Times, and subsequently reproduced in other publications around the world—becoming, in its way, an icon of Sudan, and, more generally, of the extreme hunger and poverty that many still suffer from—Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

As for the Sudanese girl, whom Carter had abandoned, her fate remains unknown.

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Sudanese girl by Kevin Carter

Photograph by Kevin Carter, courtesy of BBC h2g2. No copyright infringement intended.

I have encountered this, the most in/famous of Carter’s photographs, several times, but whenever I look at it, I feel a sense of horror: horror not so much at what it depicts, or at its formal, even sublime, beauty as an image, but at the fact of its existence. Carter’s picture does not merely re-present a long-gone moment—like all other visual records, it re-presences a particular way of seeing the world: in this instance, the kind of gaze that lights upon a famished child being eyed by a vulture and recognizes an opportunity—not to come to the aid of another, but to distance oneself from that other by retreating behind the lens of the camera and taking the best possible shot.

That the language of the camera, which is to say the language of photography and its sister arts of television and cinema, seethes with force is not, I think, a coincidence: moments, situations, and events are invariably caught, captured, shot, snapped, or taken—rather like animals hunted for their meat, while the resultant pictures and clips are the preserved carcasses mounted for display. The acts of seeing, of recording what one sees, and of sharing that record—these can be violent acts, especially when one is confronted with tragedy.

The violence is inherent in the decision to aestheticize, to render spectacular (that is, to transform into spectacle)—pain and misfortune, thereby acquiescing to the power of the structures that inflict them, as well as anaesthetizing whatever sympathy and care might be summoned for the ones who suffer—and such violence is everywhere perpetuated in the name of telling the truth, which, in our time, is no longer the province of prophets or soothsayers, but of reporters.

It may be true that Carter was only there to document what he saw in order that others might be moved into assuming the burden of addressing the problems of Sudan. It is equally true that the feeding center toward which the girl was crawling was only a short walk away, and Carter neither brought the child to the center, nor asked the center staff to rescue her, if, as some have argued, he had been explicitly forbidden by health workers to touch the children, on account of their depressed immune systems.

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Much ink has been spilled and much air has been heated in the debate over the manner in which the local mass media covered the hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand last August 23, Monday, and journalists, individually and collectively, have sought to excuse their conduct by wrapping themselves in the flag of their duty to the public, apparently heedless of the possibility that such a duty could be exercised at the expense of the public they claim to serve.

“News blackout is not in our vocabulary anymore,” arrogantly declared Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) National President Herman Basbaño, never mind that Article 6 of the KBP Broadcast Code of 2007 [PDF] specifically contemplates crisis situations, stating that the coverage of such “should avoid inflicting undue shock and pain to families and loved ones of victims” and should not “provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators”. In what way, shape, or form did the virtually panoptic, gratuitously detailed, and excruciatingly narrated coverage of the crisis, which some media outfits labeled a “drama”, comply or align with these provisions?

Those who challenge critics of the media to explain exactly how the crisis could have ended less tragically had the reporters on the ground behaved differently are being disingenuous, as one would only be able to respond with a species of speculative fiction. It seems to me that the right question to ask is not, “How would the situation have changed?” but, “Did the media act with due diligence, with integrity, and with compassion during (and after) the crisis?”

Also disingenuous are those who insist that media workers cannot be faulted for succumbing to the professional instinct to report. Are journalists victims of their training and experience? Are they fundamentally incontinent, utterly bereft of the ability to hold themselves in check, to remember that their work is governed by ethical imperatives beyond the injunction to bear witness, to lay bare the capital-T Truth—not to mention guidelines from previous unfortunate experience?

Perhaps the most honest—definitely the most chilling—response to the firestorm of criticism against the media that I have come across was from Maria Ressa, the head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. During a forum at the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines last August 28, Friday, she said that had ABS-CBN unilaterally stopped or delayed its broadcast, “We would have been criticized by the viewers or what viewers would have done is switch stations.” (She had previously tweeted a similar assertion.)

Based on this statement, the foremost concern of Ressa, and by extension, of her network, would appear to be nothing more than ratings—which is to say, in the final analysis, money, or what might be collected under the general rubric of cultural capital (trust, credibility, prestige), because ratings have no value if they cannot eventually be transformed into one or the other.

Let me be clear: I do not begrudge journalists their earnings. Like many other noble professions, journalism is practiced for money (though probably not wealth, and, in this country, certainly not longevity). The desire to inform and educate is not easily—if at all—separable from the desire to attain financial security and gain status. But has the drive for profit, economic or otherwise, become so overpowering as to erode the media’s sense of responsibility, if slowly and surreptitiously? Has the Fourth Estate become complacent, considering that it has historically received from the general public a level of trust far greater than most other institutions, including the state? Does the press see itself as accountable to its audience in the first place, and if so, to what extent?

What might journalists write about, report on, photograph, film, record, cover, broadcast, or talk about if they ceased to focus on fighting battles for attention, for advertisers, for legitimacy, for the bottom line? What might journalism look like if reportage ceased to involve sensational spectacles of suffering that serve less to stimulate action than to stupefy the mind and steel the heart against pity?

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