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April 20, 2005

More Benetton

Marburg1

One or two columns back, Frank Rich was talking about the good use the right wing had been making out of death lately.  I’m sure he didn’t invent the term, but he described this type of exploitation as “necro-porn.”

Having looked at hundreds and hundreds of newswire photos after the tsunami last December, there is one newswire shot I saw –  taken in Indonesia two days after the cataclysm — that is still fresh in my mind.  The reason it remains so vivid is because it was one of the few that didn’t make me feel like a voyeur.  It showed a young man, maybe about seventeen, walking down the ramp of a thatched roof community building, carrying the body of a deceased relative wrapped in a thick bright carpet. 

What was unique about the shot, however, was how plainly obvious it was his picture was being taken.  Of course, there was no way to tell how much the smoldering anger on this boy’s face, and in his eyes, was the result of the shattering loss he was experiencing, or his reaction to the fact that someone — at that particular moment — had seen an opportunity in it. 

In contrast, I can’t tell if this nameless man — as part of a group of relatives of victims of the Marburg virus in the Angolan town of Uige — has any idea his picture is being taken.  However, I’m almost certain he has no idea his image was an “Editor’s Choice” today on the Reuters website– along with, among others, the new Pope, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and Lance Armstrong.

(image: Mike Hutchings/Reuters. April 19, 2005 at reuters.co.uk/)

  • Johanna

    I cannot analyze this – I can only offer a prayer from my heart in response to this picture, of a man whom I have never met and his profound grief.
    My God -
    Help me…
    for my heart is wretched with the suffering I am witnessing.
    Help me…
    to be strong and to hold in my heart, the grief, the pain, and the cries of those who are suffering.

    Peace. Johanna

  • aethorian

    Gone But Not Forgotten is an online PBS POV gallery of postmortem photography in America, the once common practice of photographing the dead in their caskets, often at home and surrounded by their family.

    It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on those images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.
    Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs. Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.

    Considering how we (at least in America) avoid controversial images of death, these photographs would probably be regarded as gruesome today. However, many of them are quite serene, and some are heart-rending, but respectful postmortem photography might remind us that death is a normal part of family life, and help ease our grief.

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