Media offers full, blunt, hideous picture of trauma caused by Haiti earthquake

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

The images coming out of Haiti are more graphic than those from recent natural disasters, and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not clear if this reflects the magnitude and proximity of the disaster, or some change in the willingness of newspapers and other media to accurately present the full horror of the earthquake that devastated the desperately poor nation on Tuesday afternoon.

Or is Haiti simply an exception? Is there something about the essential status of the entire country and its people that gives the media new license?

The usual conventions of suggesting rather than displaying trauma seem to have been punctured, at least for now. Bodies caked in dust and plaster, faces covered in blood, the dead stacked in the streets without sheets to hide them -- these are all violations of the unwritten code that death can only be seen, in the established etiquette of the mainstream media, by analogy or metaphor or discreet substitute.

On Friday, The Post ran a picture of a young girl, seen from behind, her torso crushed by the weight of fallen concrete. The New York Times ran a picture of a dead man on a makeshift stretcher, covered in the white dust that makes so many of the bodies -- living or dead -- look sculptural. The BBC's Web site featured a warning about the graphic nature of its image gallery, which included a young girl looking up imploringly at the camera while a man, half buried in rubble and his face turned away, bled profusely down his back. Old ladies are seen disheveled and almost naked; the bandages on children don't hide the gore.

Images of war, especially the wars the United States has been fighting for almost a decade now, are always politicized. Graphic representation of death is explosive, and it is customary (in this country) to control it, for fear of inflaming passions, either for or against the conflict. In recent years, and in contrast to millenniums of history in which wounds and blood were proudly displayed by warriors (come back with your shield, or on it, the Greeks said), the soldier's privacy has been seen as paramount. And so in the United States, images of wartime suffering are intricately referential but rarely graphic: a shattered car, but not its occupants; blood on the ground, but not the body that bled; clothing scattered among rubble, but not the people who once lived there.

The fear of violating the victim's privacy -- which is a strange and dubious scruple -- isn't in operation in Haiti. After years of hinting at horror, the scales have fallen, the camera is unsheathed as a seemingly transparent window on misery, and journalists are allowed to show the worst, and say with the blunt, desperate urgency of the best journalism: Look.

In December, the fifth anniversary of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in Southeast Asia, we recycled images of that disaster. Although the tidal wave struck in poor countries, it also affected wealthy Westerners living and vacationing on the coasts of the Indian Ocean, and it was their imagery that defined the tragedy in the public memory. These were horrifying, dynamic images of the tragedy in motion, of waves surging onto beaches, over sea walls, through streets. There were images of bodies, too, but to see the devastation in motion was more seductive and mesmerizing, and it made the stronger impact. Perhaps we were also more squeamish then, less willing to look at the aftermath (though it wasn't hard to find).

What's changed? There are obvious answers: The slow numbing effect of the past decade, which also included devastating images from New Orleans and Sichuan, China, may simply have the lowered the threshold of what is acceptable to show. The easy availability of the most graphic photographs and videos online may have changed the equation for everyone. There also seems to be a self-lacerating, guilt-ridden quality to the graphic coverage, as if the Western media are indicting both themselves and the larger Western indifference to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

But the cruelty and anguish of this disaster are also incongruously large compared with the usual, crude metrics -- the reading of the Richter scale or the body count -- we use to assess earthquakes. The images may be stronger and more visceral because they are already in argument with the bland ranking the history books may record.

More than anything else, however, the willingness to look this disaster square on reflects the problematic, even embarrassing status of Haiti. It was a country tossed aside, seemingly consigned to the status of a street person whose needs are intractable. There were, of course, years of engagement and disengagement, as the United States and countries from around the hemisphere intervened (often disastrously) in Haitian politics. There were U.N. resolutions, peacekeepers and aid efforts. But with devastating hurricanes, a failed political system, corruption, coups and riots, Haiti became the very definition of a failed state. To be blunt: It came to seem as if the people of Haiti had no status.

If you believe that, then it is impossible to violate their privacy.

There are many more important things that must be wrung out of this misery, but the camera is recording something elemental that will affect everything to do with the future of this troubled country. It is asking if these are people, like us. It is asking if we believe they are human.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company