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Jan 09, 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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I don't think that the Press would allow wealthy white people to be photographed this way after a disaster.

If I were a photojournalist in areas "The Tsunami" devastated, I would probably do these things: talk to people about what they were doing to survive after having lost their homes and possessions, and hang around a person or group of people and document their activities. Perhaps the photographer who took this photo did a similar thing: started a conversation with Ms. Dedumu and asked her what she was doing that day. I would have asked if I could take photos of her for a while she was going about her routines. If she was comfortable with me taking a photo of her showering, I would have taken such a photo in a tasteful way. It may be that the photographer found Ms. Dedumu taking a shower, and perhaps taken a few photos without her permission. To me, the next thing to do after taking a photo like that would be to ask permission to use it in publication. She gave her name to the journalist, so she may not have had any problem with being depicted in such a way. As for the way it was published, I think it does exploit some of the "sex and violence" fixation in American media you touched on, but I also think it's tastefully done. I don't know if white people would be depicted doing the same things in American newspapers, honestly. In a situation that dire, I would assume Americans would take showers in the open. Whether a journalist would bother to show Americans doing that kind of activity in similar circumstances is a matter of personal preference. But, since the goal of journalists (and especially photojournalists) is to accurately report others' stories, I would imagine at least one person would bother to spend time with a source, take photos of personal and intimate moments, and submit those to an editor.

Have you seen the Time Magazine Tsunami cover? Even more disturbing than this one: beautiful woman, obviously at the height of grief, on the ground reaching out to the hand of a dead loved one. The hand is all we see of the dead; the woman is shown fully. Dario Argento hits the mainstream.

I think that all the photographic coverage of this disaster has hit on visual stereotypes of the region; native, primative, tribal even. This photograph is voyouristic in the same way that a lot of photographs of "tribes" and what not are. If this has happened in Florida, theres no way this picture would be run. There would be pictures of people surveying their damaged homes with a look of devastation, or something similar. Its the foreigness of the victims of this disaster which allows the Times editors to feel this is appropriate.

PS I fucking love this website. I never post, but always read. Not nearly enough people are thinking about this kind of stuff. Its easy to look at something and judge it quickly, but this kind of analysis and dialogue is rare....keep it up!

Dan, As important as it is to more thoroughly look at these images, it's important to talk about them and debate them, as well. It's important because our culture continues to conduct an increasing amount of exchange on a primarily visual plane. It's also important here at "the BAG" because I represent only one point of view.

I'm glad for your comment and hope you will contribute more.

Dan's post moves me to recommend a book, Malek Alloula's 'The Colonial Harem,' which documents a more overtly (from a contemporary perspective) voyeuristic fantasy of the Orient: 19th century postcards of attractive Middle Eastern women trapped in a (Western) male fantasy. Though in a muted fashion, this tsunami-aftermath photo clearly plays off of the idea of the "Orient" as the essentially Other (denuded, helpless, simple), as such a semipornographic image would be unthinkable in a, not even American, but WHITE context. NB: while Said's overly broad assertions (especially about academic Orientalism) are often faulty, this is a fantastic illustration of how imaginative Orientalism lives on, and we can thank him for our picking up on the libidinal subtexts here. Great job all around on this site!

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