Now there are photographs of mass graves in New York, while yet more images of disaster emerge from Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee and cities all across the country. Hospitals are overflowing, streets are empty, food lines are staffed by National Guard troops. Photos circulate of homeless people in Las Vegas sleeping in a grid of socially distanced rectangles, painted directly on the surface of a parking lot, and living in tents separated by white lines drawn on the grass in Honolulu. And as shocking images proliferate, they become dissonant among one another, subverting logic. The homeless are crowded into open spaces, while grocery stores are ominously empty. The people who are most essential, who play the most fundamentally human role at the moment, medical staff and first responders, are dehumanized behind blue gowns and white masks.
Is that truck double-parked on the streets of New York part of a movie set, a luxury trailer for cloistering camera-shy movie stars? No, it’s a refrigeration truck, for bodies that have overwhelmed the morgues and cremation chambers.
No one image seems to capture the moment, evidence that the horror of what is happening has overwhelmed our capacity to brand it and contain it within a single, iconic picture. One plastic curtain looks like another, one ambulance shrieking through the empty streets is indistinguishable from the rest, one makeshift hospital can stand for all the others. The generic visuals of the catastrophe hypnotize us into receptivity to the simple facts of the matter: Inside those generic ambulances are real first responders, many of whom have no health insurance; inside those hospitals, doctors and nurses lack equipment and basic protective masks and gowns. In a visual age, there is no sufficient visual image to capture the moment, so we listen, to governors desperate to escape the free-for-all competition for ventilators, to families whose loved ones have died alone inside quarantined hospital wards, to the mindless blather of demagogues who cannot even now take a break from their narcissism.
The virus, it seems, hasn’t just come to America. It has come home. That was the subtext of the president’s remarks. After weeks of dismissing or minimizing the crisis, it was pictures from Queens that helped him realize the gravity of the situation.
The idea of “coming home” is basic to how we think of suffering and tragedy. A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Mathew Brady’s New York gallery displayed images made by Alexander Gardner of the dead lying on the battlefield. Crowds gathered and pored over them, searching out the details to discern the faces of dead young men.
A writer for the New York Times, responding to the photographs when they were published later in Harper’s magazine, wrote: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” In that article, the critic prefigured not just Trump’s sudden volte-face — the realization that the pandemic is real, and the situation is serious — but a long history of thinking about images of suffering in geographic terms. We try to situate them on a distant topographic line, with home on the high ground, safely removed from the trauma.
That home is both literal and metaphorical. Photographs of suffering disturb us when they come into our actual homes, arriving through the newspaper or screen, and when they come home to disturb us in the metaphorical sense, evicting us from our comfort and complacency.
For much of the last half-century, there has been a powerful resistance to images of suffering in America. After the Vietnam War, dubbed the “living room war” because it brought the graphic reality of combat into American homes on a nightly basis, new media standards emerged, largely suppressing the most graphic images of war, famine and natural disaster. The public, squeamish about such things and always ready to complain — “not while I’m eating breakfast” — abetted in the creation of an imaginary cordon around what we now call the “homeland.”
Things would occasionally break through, a starving child seemingly stalked by a vulture in Sudan during a 1993 famine, or bodies lying on the streets of Port-au-Prince after an earthquake in 2010. But when these images pierced the defenses, they circulated as representations of foreign suffering. Often, they weren’t just foreign, but racially or culturally other, images of people with darker skin or different religions than what was then the majority in America.
The “othering” of these images was essential not just to our sense of comfort and complacency, but to our identity as Americans. There was a fable about American power built into them. They arrived like ambassadors from exotic lands to reassure us: Yes, there is misery in the world, but not where you live. You are different. Your government, your laws, your leadership, your culture will defend you. We suffer to remind you of the blessings you enjoy.
It was inevitable that this cordon could not hold, not just because there is a surfeit of suffering in the world, nor because suffering would inevitably come to the United States, but because those fantastical ambassadors were wrong. We, too, thought there were structures and systems in place that would defend us; that if ever we faced a terrible shock, we could weather it with less death and more grace and steadiness. But we were wrong.
The fantasy went beyond just faith in our governance and a resilient economy. American stability had forged our identity and made us better people. Bad things didn’t happen to good people, at least so long as the good people were us. For as long as we believed the myth, we could behave more recklessly, we could spend without saving, neglect the safety net, eat out the larder and empty the cellar, because we were not the sort of people who starved.
Does anyone remember the images of Dorothea Lange, or any of the great photographers who brought home the human wreckage of the last depression? Does nothing remain of the outrage embedded in images of the 1960s, the last time this society grappled in any meaningful way with its inequities?
Images of Hurricane Katrina, of desperately poor people abandoned by their government in the floodwaters of New Orleans, unsettled but didn’t shatter the faith. Repeated images of gun carnage from our schools, churches and shopping malls eroded a bit of it, too. But the reflexive impulse to keep the pain of other people at a remove remained vigorous, even as climate change made it clear that few of us could escape the impact of rising seawater, a supercharged atmosphere and endless cycles of droughts and floods.
Now, even the president acknowledges that we are seeing things we have never seen before. He didn’t add what is also true: that these things always existed, while we just refused to look. But his comments signal a profound change in the old magical thinking, and it can’t come a moment too soon. Not only did the old American stability fail to make us better people, but it also was never stable in the first place. Not only was the message of the old ambassadors wrong — that Americans are well and safely governed — but we also must now rethink our identity, from first principles to final conclusions.
So the virus has come home, to Queens and everywhere else. The time has come for us to wear masks. And when at last we can take the masks off, finally then we will begin to know who we are.