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January 19, 2010

Your Turn: Haiti, On a Not-Insubstantial Level, A Show

Sarla Chand.jpg

For days now, we have been flooded by absolutely horrific, increasingly grisly and often factually confusing or fragmentary images pouring out of Haiti distributed not just via broadcast, but faster and more widely than ever before, through the proliferating and voraciously “page view” hungry on-line media.

If this bombardment raises enough moral and professional red flags to spawn dozens of books, lectures and seminars, perhaps the simplest questions we need to begin with are: what ethical lines can and should be drawn in terms of the acquisition and distribution of these disaster images, and what kind of context and discretion does the situation visually call out for?

Three days ago now, my friends Matt Lutton and Scott Brauer at DVAFoto, both of them professional photographers, posted this image from the BBC in Pictures. As the caption and the photo indicate, Ms. Chand (an American working for a non-profit aid organization in Haiti, having been rescued from the Hotel Montana) happened to be photographed along with a bee hive of other photographers, the image inadvertently framing the extent to which the extreme humanitarian crisis in Haiti has been, is, and remains a dramatic media spectical, and, on a not-insubstantial level, a perverse and unavoidable show.

I not only encourage you to read and think about this image, but to read Matt and Scott’s post before responding.

(photo: Carl Juste/AP/The Miami Herald caption: Sarla Chand, 65, of New Jersey, sits after being recently rescued by U.S., French and Spanish rescue workers, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, after more than 50 hours being buried underneath the pile of rubble that was formerly the Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The hotel, which sits on a ridge, was flattened from the earthquake. She says she had been speaking to five other people trapped with her up until the moment she was rescued. Chand is a physician.)

  • tinwoman

    Hello Michael–notice the comments are not posting, probably being monitored….feel free to edit mine in any way you see fit, if you see anything worth passing on. I`m a bit irritated with it all and it’s probably showing….

  • billyjoe

    News organizations know that footage of survivors being pulled from the wreckage a week after the quake will reignite ratings and news stand sales.
    The photogs will receive accolades and awards for their images.
    It’s heartwarming and inspiring to the folks at home, but meanwhile, more people die.
    Hey photojournalists, you’ll be doing more for humanity if you put down those !#!@#!# cameras, grab a shovel (hopefully you packed on with your lenses and film) and start digging.

  • tinwoman

    Biilyjoe, I don’t live in the States, and see a slightly different media angle than those at home do.
    In the slums, apparently, no help has arrived, and only Mother Theresa’s order of nuns has ventured into the really stricken parts with a small amount of water. All of the hectic activity you are seeing on the news is concentrated around a very small area which, not coincidentally, is the neighborhood of Haiti’s few wealthy, the expats, and the full service hotels that house the folks who like to call themselves “mission workers” one week or two out of the year.
    The ownership class has hired armed guards to protect their assets, and people are now being shot for foraging for food. The police are being paid to protect smashed stores; one man was arrested for carrying cans of tinned milk (unfortunately I do not have the link). Haitians, most having seen no help arrive, are now willing to do anything to get out of the death zone, and are fleeing the city leaving the dead, the wounded, and what’s left of their homes and possessions behind. And yet there over a hundred flights a day going in and out of the airport. Rescuers of all nations are complaining about arriving in Haiti only to sit around, unable to get clearance to go into the city. And nobody works after dark, because of the universal fear of being attacked.
    The double standard being applied in the rescue effort is becoming hourly more apparent, and the discrimination against the poor has moved from being passive to active. It’s a sorry spectacle.

  • tinwoman

    As for the army of papparazzi surrounding the victims, especially the children, I can only quote the well-known song, “The bubble-headed beach blonde/comes on at five/She can talk about the plane crash/with a gleam in her eye/It’s interesting when people die….” People have been noticing this tendency in the media for a long time, and have given it a name: disaster p0rn.
    Orhan Parmuk has written more in depth about how viewing tragedy makes us feel happy because we realize we are not in the same place as the sufferers; we feel separate and by extension, unconsciously pleased with ourselves. A satisfying feeling of superiority is the psychological result. We all know, also, that it’s an adrenalin rush to travel to these afflicted places–why else would Nazi death camps and shelled out buildings in Bosnia become tourist destinations? And if you can’t go there, you will want to view it on television.
    Yes, this psychological condition is troubling and filled with ethical questions–and I think a certain lack of empathy and a lot of mental detachment is required to get a kick out of touring the destruction of an earthquake zone–but people are complicated creatures.

  • Progressive Mom

    Since Katrina, US news organizations increasingly seem to be more interested in turning their correspondents into “stars” during disaster, not by good reporting, but by inserting themselves into the disaster. Thus, we have reporters helping in surgery, reporters carrying (one) baby to safety, reporters digging in the last moments before recovery with a trained recovery team … etc.
    It’s no longer enough for the US MSM to report; they must be part of the disaster and show some “heroism” — real or manufactured — to get on-air cred.
    Yet, we watch. The rest of the lyric noted above, of course, is “we love dirty laundry.”

  • pragmatic realist

    The ethics of a profession do not eliminate the ethics of the person who is the “professional”. You can’t rightfully do something a a professional that you can’t do as a person. It is always personal, never “just business”.

  • Moteinyoureye

    There are grizzlies in Haiti? As if they didn’t have enough to deal with.

  • mcmama

    I don’t watch. I can’t bear the sanctimonious crapola pouring out of the mouths of the pretty bobble-heads using an unimaginable disaster to promote their careers.

  • Wordsmith

    Is that Eric Bana posing as a rescue worker? Looks to be an exciting movie. /snark/

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Everything but. Fixed, thanks.

  • Stan B.

    Apparently, one photographer has actually deemed this the opportune time and situation to hold some kind of live Disaster Photo Workshop…

  • Wordsmith

    Live Disaster Photo workshop – and OMG! he actually responded to duckrabbit’s criticism with shit like this:
    I also believe that there are great stories around the edges of “ground zero” in Port au Prince that are not being covered and part of the workshop will be training emerging and even professional photographers in how to do stories that go beyond the pile of bodies, that we all feel is an affront to the dignity of the victims.
    I have yet to here the term ‘ground zero’ when reporting on the Haitian earthquake. But this – this is my favorite part:
    If you have some talent and commitment, and can make the financial commitment, which I am not minimizing,

  • Joe Blow

    what the hell is that? is that a corn dog?
    what is she eating?

  • rlarsen

    A couple of news photograpers cover an major event with other photgraphers and then complain that they were not the only ones there. It makes no sense to me.
    Even more odd, some people suggest that news photographers should volunteer instead of taking photographs. How about doctors picking up cameras to help with the reporting ?
    News photographers have never been popular, but much of what we know about the world is a result of their work.
    If you don’t want to see and don’t want to know, don’t pick up the newspaper, turn on the tv, or go to the internet. The work of those damn journalists is easy to ignore if you choose to.
    By the way, how did you find out about the earthquake ?

  • Kitt

    Most likely a high-protein bar. Or one of those french toast sticks from Sonic!

  • Tom White

    Photographers and journalists often get accused of disaster tourism and preying on other people’s pain and misfortune and it’s true that to some extent, we do. However, there are many many instances of journalists and photographers helping in such situations, and working over the long term to help people less fortunate from themselves. You know why you rarely see pictures of photographers and journalists helping others? Because (Duh) they put down their cameras to help. Although it’s true that there are some who photograph and do nothing, the converse is also the case. However, ‘Photographer digs in rubble’ is a less sensational story than ‘photographers crowd round rescued victim/burning body/wailing woman.’ Everyone has a role to play. Let the rescue teams dig, the medics heal and the reporters report. If a photographer has the knowledge and ability to help without hindering, then I know of many who would and do take that opportunity. I always say you should be a human first, and a photographer second, but you still have a job to do, and that is to take the picture.

  • thebluedame

    Hi tinwoman,
    Could you please pass on the reference of the Parmuk reading? (Title, year of publication) I’d like to follow up on it. It sounds like a much needed read in a world where we are bombarded with images of suffering that distance rather than connect.
    Thanks in advance!

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