The spectacle of suffering

NEW JERSEY - I would like a day without images. I would like one day to go by without turning on my computer and being inundated by images both tragic and banal. I would like one day to go by without seeing the image of Kim Kardashian displayed alongside the image of a pile of corpses in the Congo.

Lee Siegel

09 de dezembro de 2012 | 01h00

But even if I boycotted the internet, kept the television turned off, and used my cellphone only for email or texting, the conquering hordes of images would engulf me from the video in the back of a taxi, the video in the bank or supermarket, the television in the waiting room, the images flickering like postmodern fireplaces in the living rooms of neighbors' homes. When my second child was born, a nurse insisted I give her my cellphone and then stood on the other side of the curtain, snapping away as my daughter was lifted out of my wife in a C-section. "How is the baby?"I asked, stretching out my arms to hold my new daughter. The nurse beamed at me and gently put the phone back in my hand. "I got some wonderful shots," she Said.

Much used to be written about the moral ambiguity of the camera, the great book on the subject being Susan Sontag's "On Photography." Yet philosophical reflection on photography is, by this point, irrelevant. What surrounds us with the encompassing ubiquity of oxygen is not anything like "photography." Photography is the product of purpose and will. Our second-by-second siege of images is entirely random. It is the product not of purpose and will, but of distraction, prurience, and the timeless human impulse to shame and humiliate.

A friend of mine told me that she was walking along a street in Manhattan one day when she came upon a small crowd of people that had gathered on the sidewalk. As she drew closer, she saw that they had surrounded a bird with a broken wing that was struggling for life on the pavement. Evetyone had his digital device out, snapping pictures of the dying creature.

What was the meaning of it all? Were they merely expressing the human urge to record the life around them, as artists have done from the time of the cave paintings up through the impressionists, to Atget's pictures of Paris, Salgado's photographs of workers, and beyond? Were they using their digital cameras to master a reality that appalled them? Or had they, like the decadent ruling class of the late Roman Empire, grown so indifferent to suffering that the spectacle of suffering had become yet another sensual Pleasure?

And why didn't someone just pick the bird up and try to take it to a place where it could be saved? Before my friend could do so, it died.

It seems that the digital age has brought us to a "tipping point." The curiosity that keeps us engaged with the world and alive to reality has become an obscene detachment that notes horrendous events in a fantasy of immunity from time and circumstance. The photographer, as Sontag noted, has always had to grapple with the fact that "capturing" someone on film confers on the photographer a potentially abusive power. But now no one grapples with anything. They simply snap other people's-or other creature's-agony, upload it and hit "send."

Last week, the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper devoted to florid reporting of lurid events, surpassed itself in the realm of promiscuous images. It published on its front page, over the headline, "DOOMED," and with the caption "PUSHED ON THE SUBWAY TRACK, THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO DIE," the picture of a man standing on the tracks and clinging helplessly to the edge of the subway platform as a train bears down on him. Seconds later he was crushed to death. It turned out that he was a Korean man who had gotten into a fight with a homeless person, who then threw the unlucky man onto the tracks.

The debate, so familiar now in our age of profligate picture-snapping, began once again. Why didn't the photographer try to rescue the man instead of taking his picture? How could even the New York Post publish such a picture, which was sure to wound and outrage the victim's family?

According to the photographer, who says he works freelance for the New York Post, he had only snapped the picture in hopes of using his flash to warn and stop the train. (Yes, and I have a pair of wings that I use to fly to California and back.) He also claimed that the other people on the platform were also taking pictures with their iGadgets instead of helping the Korean man. That I believe.

Yet the debate is beside the point. Pictures like this will continue to appear, and people will continue to elevate voyeurism to a sickening new type of morality. Coldhearted watching-the society of the spectacle, as someone once called it-is a quality of decadence and America is, in certain ways, in its late, decadent stage. And in our age of ascendant technology, our numerous miraculous devices serve, inevitably, as delusions of immortality.

The only answer is to declare war on meaningless or degrading images. Perhaps some genius, a Steve Jobs of the opposition, will invent a new type of digital graffiti. Until then, in this country at least, we must proclaim a national holiday in which everyone has to wear a blindfold for 24 hours. They will end up seeing more in one day than they have seen in years.

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Lee Siegel

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