Friday, February 5, 2010

More exploitation of brown bodies

Watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and reading about the controversy surrounding this photo of a Haitian mother after giving birth, which appeared in the New York Times, I am reminded of the way media covered another disaster in a so-called "third world" country--Burma.

Saturday night I was watching as CNN covered the tragedy in Myanmar (Burma). I was well aware of the devastation caused by Nagris, the cyclone that ripped the country apart. What shocked me was the graphic nature of CNN's report. There were bodies and bodies and more bodies--Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn't help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human.

According to the Huffington Post, a CNN spokesperson, defending the news outlet's work in Burma, said "the enormity of the story" merited showing corpses. What are the chances that CNN will show the broken bodies of the 22 people killed in twisters that plowed across the central United States this weekend, y'know so we get "the enormity of the story?" We did not need to see graphic footage of victims to understand the enormity of Oklahoma City or 9/11. I do remember seeing some footage of Hurricane Katrina's dead--not as graphic as the Myanmar coverage--but we all know those folks in New Orleans weren't American anyway, they were "refugees." (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.)

This is the same bias that allows a magazine that would never show a naked American woman, to show an unclothed African woman. In our puritanical culture, where we are obsessed with, yet repulsed by, the bodies of the living and the dead, why do we reserve our concern only for those who look like us?
Would the New York Times ever run a photo of a white, American woman, legs spread, thighs and deflated stomach exposed in the raw moments after giving birth? I think not--even as much as the media and our society fetishizes mommyhood. We like ever so discreet celebrity "baby bumps," later maybe a "how I'm losing the weight" story, featuring an already-slimmed-down, flaxen-haired, dewy, new mother.

We are as squeamish about the realities of human birth as we are about the realities of death mentioned in my previous post. Given that, it seems that to take a photo of a woman, shortly after giving birth, nearly naked, baby still covered in fluids, at an emotional moment made more emotional by the devastation that surrounds mother and child, and then run that photo in full color in and American newspaper, you would have to think of her as somehow less than human. And certainly less worthy of the protection we afford some (read: white, American) mothers.

Richard Prince of the blog, Journal-isms, shares a comment from a reader:
"I'd like to draw your attention to a photo that ran with an NYT story from Haiti. In my opinion, it's a beautiful shot of a mother who's given birth," a reader wrote Journal-isms.

"But it's also remarkable because you'd never see its like from a place such as Austin or Des Moines or Boston if a white woman were on the table. This photo feeds the debate over whether major newspaper editors at the Times and the Washington Post are willing to publish pictures of death and nudity where black foreigners are involved.

"I've never seen a photo like this in a family newspaper. I'd be willing to bet that if this quake had hit Armenia, Bosnia or any predominantly white nation this picture would not have run. And it begs the question of whether there's a racial double standard at play here." Read more...
Prince has noted before the increasingly graphic images coming out of Haiti.

What do you think? Are graphic images necessary to illustrate devastation to the world, to generate sympathy and encourage aid? If so, why? Why is it necessary to exploit the bodies of the afflicted to provoke empathy for brown people?


windy city girl said...

Excellent post, Tami! The vast majority of America’s mainstream media seemed almost giddy to show Haitians as an undifferentiated mass. This dovetails with the way the media and most Americans view Haiti and her people – i.e., as a place defined by poverty and despair. Oh and bad luck. The desire to portray Haiti – a country with a vibrant history and rich culture – as merely pitiable is insulting and racist.

Framing the earthquake coverage this way also ignores America’s own role in Haiti’s ongoing subjugation and impovrishment. It makes me incoherent with rage.

In answer to your questions, a few photos here and there to delineate the scope of the devastation would seem to be enough. And the bottom line is editors still have a CHOICE when it comes to which photos will be used to convey the scope of a disaster.

Anonymous said...

So many of these white journalists believe the black and brown bodies are akin to animals in the wild, even in death. It's very National Pornographic...I'm mean Geographic.

ZiaTroyano said...

Reading the reactions on the Journal-isms blog, I'm surprised at how positive they are, even from the person with NABJ. My gut reaction to that shot would be to consider if I would want that pic shown if the woman was a family member.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Once again, great post. I hate the "enormity of the story" b.s. that gets trotted out when a frankly exploitative photo is made public. Yeah, the enormity of trying to get web hits / sell magazines or whatever.

There is nothing undignified about this woman's photo in and of itself - in fact I find it beautiful and powerful. I have actually seen many, many women in pictures moments after birth - because I'm a homebirth junkie, having had my child this way and having researched it a lot. And I think the way our culture is squeamish about birth (and female bodies) is disgusting and it harms all women. I would like to see more such pictures in the mainstream... however, what it says about the fact we're seeing this one, now, in full-color and whatnot, is not an example of a "healthy" discussion around birth:

Given that, it seems that to take a photo of a woman, shortly after giving birth, nearly naked, baby still covered in fluids, at an emotional moment made more emotional by the devastation that surrounds mother and child, and then run that photo in full color in and American newspaper, you would have to think of her as somehow less than human. And certainly less worthy of the protection we afford some (read: white, American) mothers.


Deb said...

First of, I think that PARTICULAR birth photo, is uplifting, beautiful, and inspiring. I see a beautiful, vigorous baby-- good tone, good color, a grimace, all things that make my heart soar as someone who has been in more delivery rooms than I can remember-- being lifted onto his/her mother's abdomen in the first moments after birth, surrounded by a smiling team of professionals who look confident and capable. Cleaner than most births I've been in on, too. I think it's a wonderful photo, in and in context particularly it speaks of resilience and hope.

I see a difference in this photo and the photos of death, despair and destruction that some seem to revel in. I've refused to look at those. I don't need to see them. I don't want to see them. I can't stop what has happened, but I damn well don't need to add the insult of loss of privacy and dignity to it. I would argue that rather than being used to illustrate the magnitude of the tragedy, to build empathy and understanding, these images are often used to DEPERSONALIZE and DISTANCE.

One of the things that really bothers me about photo journalism is the idea of consent. Dead people can't give permission for the images of their brutalized, mutilated bodies to be shown all over the world. The corollary to that is that the mother in this photo is evidently very much alive. Did the photographer have her permission to photograph this incredibly personal moment? Did s/he have permission to use this photo in this way? I'm really asking; I don't know what the "rules" are.

I have to agree that it is easier for people in power to publish photos like these when they don't really feel the subjects have the right to privacy and dignity in the first place. And, because I feel these images dehumanize (although I admit I haven't backed up that argument) I'd also argue this is both a symptom of the way people of color are viewed, and that it helps perpetuate that very issue.

snobographer said...

I was worried I was being shallow, but there have been other still pics from Haiti in the news that have bothered me. Like there's this one CNN uses of this girl being fed. Her mouth is wide open and somebody's spooning food into it. I just can't imagine that same picture of a white American being displayed repeatedly on the news. I think if that girl was a white disaster victim the photographer would have waited ten seconds until she'd swallowed her food before s/he took the shot.

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

I totally agree with you on this one. I've been really bothered by some of the images I've seen. One in particular was of a Haitian woman walking around just after the quake without a shirt on. I thought it was so exploitive - I was in Haiti that day and there were women who ran out of their house in towels. I can't imagine taking a photo of them in that context. And I can't imagine it would have been tolerated if it was a white woman. (Shouldn't have been tolerated at all).

Although, like Kelly, I do enjoy seeing photos of birth and found this one especially beautiful given that it is a picture of new life for Haiti. But - agree with the analysis that this type of photography is generally not presented, and therefore suspect in this context.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely correct - and thanks for making/helping me see it. It's obscene - the double standard not the bodies.

PureGracefulTree said...

I went to a community forum two days after the quake that was mostly attended by Haitians. One man said that he was more upset by what the news media were saying than what he saw on screen, and many others nodded in assent. "This is not the time to remind us how poor we are." Even in the midst of such tremendous tragedy, it's the indignity that hurts the most.

AnotherWomensStudiesPhD said...

Thank you for a great post, it really got me thinking about the photo (and I totally agree with your critique).

I have been thinking about it since you posted, particularly since I thought I *had* seen something similar before in the Times. Yesterday I came across it: - an almost identical photo from an article on childbirth in Tanzania.

I have also searched, but been unable to find, a similar photo of a white woman giving birth in that piece.

The differences in portrayals are really stark, in fact. To take just one example, this piece on home births in the New York area (almost all of whom are white women)

AnotherWomensStudiesPhD said...

Opps, links didn't show up:

Tanzania birth piece:

Home birth piece:


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