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?

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