The Aesthetics of Inexpressible Pain
This post is generally about the tragedy in Haiti, and more specifically about this Google Maps/GeoEye presentation available on The Globe and Mail’s website. The presentation shows side-by-side satellite images of downtown Port-au-Prince, one taken this week and the other, sometime in the recent past.
It’s worth taking a tour through the Globe’s debris field to try and get a sense of the totality of the damage. But I wonder if, while doing this, anybody will share my initial reaction. It’s an embarrassingly First World reaction, so much so that I only offer it here because I trust the readers of this blog can follow an initial idea through to its conclusion. The reaction was this: uncertainty at which photo (the right or the left) represented the before, and which represented the after. Surely, this reaction is contingent on which direction you move your cursor from the starting point at the National Palace, but there are paths through the slums and failed experiments of the capitol city wherein the day-to-day environment of the Haitian people is reminiscent of the images deployed the last time Google Maps lit the sky above an international tragedy, namely in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. From the abandoned buildings to the hardscrabble temporary shelters to the eerie presence of a single monument to sport, heaving under the chaos of the city, Port-au-Prince’s before looks like New Orleans’s after.
What I’m getting at here is this: that by any North American standard, the state of Haitian society before the earthquake was already an emergency. With blinding AIDS rates and the worst economy in the Western Hemisphere, nothing in Port-au-Prince reacts logically to the expresions “return to normalcy”, or “emergency management”. I’m trying to say all this with complete humility, and as much understanding as can be expected, when observing the extent to which the situation in Haiti has worsened in the last four days. I know it has worsened. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s always been an emergency.
From my comfortable couch, I sit confused, and somewhat concerned, that the aesthetics lesson of Haiti is being misconstrued from the outset. I also sit here as someone who believes that after the practicalities of food and shelter are secured, the aesthetics lessons of international catastrophes also matter. If someone wants to accuse me of being a dreamer for thinking in terms of appearances so early in the aftermath, so be it. But I’d argue that those who speak in terms of returning Haiti to a state of prosperity when there was never any prosperity (and only nominally a State) to begin with are moving too quickly into dreamscape, as well. It’s important, I believe, that we remember things correctly.
The visual story of the Haiti tragedy shouldn’t be told in these massive summarizing photographic events. The narrative of articles like the one in the Globe read something like this: slow, guttural, groan of a hellhole becomes piercing banshee wail of a hellhole. But with the work the media (both the institutional media and individual media) has ahead of it, the question becomes one of how to best market the inexpressible pain of Haiti such that the international response is as fast and generous as required. If the idea of “marketing the anguish” in any way strikes us as cynical, so be it. It’s only cynical if it’s not effective. And effective or not, I’d much rather be cynical than self-righteous.
The aesthetics of Haiti need to be tiny, personal, immediate images. The lesson needs to contain the reminder that, for our purposes, earthquakes are not disasters of architecture. Their victims aren’t buildings. Haiti (and I’ve never been there, and will likely never go there) is a nation so poor that its very topography is alien. So alien that, translated through the superhuman lens of First World technology, it is difficult to deduce which photo is the Before, and which is the After.
I leave you with some alternate photos, photos taken on the ground, and of people. Employing the massive semiotic powers I know you all have, I ask you to read these photographs as storytellers, and tell me the narrative. Considering everything from macroeconomics to the biology of the human body— via politics, race, instinct, and incentive, what are these photographs telling us about the situation?
What is the narrative of this photo?
And this one?
And this one?
And, having translated the above images into stories, what then happens to the narrative of this original (clickable) Google Earth photograph? Has it changed? I argue that, if it hasn’t, we have already missed our chance at the lesson.
In the spirit of putting that “food and shelter” practicality first, I invite all able parties to jump over to the Canadian Red Cross’s Haiti site and make a small donation. I just did so, and it took me all of 40 seconds from start to finish. If anyone has a personal preference when it comes to relief charities, I’m all ears. Or rather, the comments section below is all ears.