Hollywood films gleefully celebrate slow-mo death and dismemberment, but real-deal death is something we North Americans have a hard time dealing with as a culture. We put it off. We avoid mentioning it in the presence of children. In the media, not only do we resist images of bodies (especially American or white ones), in some cases, we even resist images of caskets.
That’s an excerpt from a blog post by Carolina Miranda about why she’s okay with photographs of the dead. It’s in response to this article by Joerg Colberg, who’s photography blog I read religiously, and who considers photographs of death to be sensational.
I remember when I got Annie Leibovitz’s book, A Photographer’s Life. Among the photos of her parents at the beach and various celebrities hanging out in her studio was one photo that stuck with me, of Annie’s life-partner Susan Sontag, dead in her hospice bed. Annie even stated that she didn’t know what else to do when Susan died, so she took her portrait. The photo is beautiful, and loving. And I remember thinking that this was something that Annie Leibovitz could pull off, but not me, if I were in the same situation.
That speaks to my own conflicted feelings about this issue. I agree that it’s ironic that Americans celebrate death in movies (from Hostel to Kill Bill to Heathers to Final Destination to Pan’s Labyrinth) but yet in life, it’s almost considered crass to use the words, “he died.” Instead we substitute for it vague phrases like “passed away” or “crossed over” that are rather meaningless, when you really think about them.
I agree that we shouldn’t hide from the fact that the world and its inhabitants can be evil to each other sometimes. But at the same time no one, including myself, wants to see dead bodies every night on the news. I think there’s a way to do it right, but I also think there are many ways that photographs of death and violence cheapens and sensationalizes the story. I’m not scholarly enough to define the difference, I just know it when I see it.