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.

Two Photographs that Insult the Human Condition (Click for More)

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.

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10 Comments on “The Aesthetics of Inexpressible Pain”

  1. Michael Lista Says:

    But Jake earthquakes are disasters of architecture; the problem is precisely that the architecture is in the wrong place, namely on top of everyone when it should be around them. I think you should give the Globe a little more credit and rest assured that the purpose of the map was not to lament the architecture of the Haitian capital as victim, but rather to give a sense of the totality of the destruction of a city; I don’t think we need a photograph of a wailing citizen to know that beneath each smashed roof is a wailing, or worse, unwailing, citizen. All of that broken architecture is on everybody.

    The sort of alternative photographs you suggest–the “tiny, personal, immediate images”–show us a person’s pain, but not her problems, and in Haiti many of the problems are infrastructural: access to running water for example–which only about 20% of Haitians regularly had before the quake–is in many unsexy ways an architectural problem. In fact I’d argue that focusing on the agonized face of the individual in a moment of catastrophe can serve more to fetishize suffering than trying to understand its causes and alleviating them. Haitians need immediate practical help, not poetic or PR help: their roofs off their bodies, water at their sinks, sewage out of their houses, their hospitals not in heaps, corpses in the ground, their buildings out of their streets, all of which are more architectural issues than editorial ones.

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Michael,

    “rest assured that the purpose of the map was not to lament the architecture of the Haitian capital as victim, but rather to give a sense of the totality of the destruction of a city;”

    Sure. But this is still giving up international comprehension of the situation to a sort of distant summarization. The overhead shot is a statistic, separated in much the same way from the sharp realities of the disaster as the CIA World Factbook was from the realities of Haiti pre-disaster.

    And as mentioned in the post, I learned as much about the sad state of P-au-P pre-earthquake as after.

    “In fact I’d argue that focusing on the agonized face of the individual in a moment of catastrophe can serve more to fetishize suffering than trying to understand its causes”

    Agreed. But this is always going to happen. The market for all of these photographs is the Western media consumer, looking at the photograph among thousands of others in a given day. No full understanding of the situation can come from viewing a single photograph (whether because the subject photo is too small, or too large) so a festish is in many ways all you can hope for, and something of a welcomed blunt interest when you consider that there are heartstrings to pull, and money to raise.

    “Haitians need immediate practical help, not poetic or PR help:”

    Amen. And I said as much in the post. But I would argue that, in trying to parse meaning out of the endless flow of gory images from Haiti, WE as watchers need all the poetic help we can get. The population always develops a sort of aesthetic rubric from the coverage of a disaster, certain images are considered more or less iconic to the emergency, and in Haiti I think it’s important we look closely, that intimate witnessing of real, physical, blood-n-shit pain is important.

    Cheers Michael-I like to see your name in this comment section.

  3. Michael Lista Says:

    I’ve got to tell you, Jake, amid the angry din of the verse-o-sphere, your blog is a wonderful, enlightening respite.


  4. “The aesthetics of Haiti need to be tiny, personal, immediate images.”

    This article from the Washington Post addresses the kinds of images coming out of Haiti and how they differ from those taken of disasters that have come before:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/15/AR2010011503745.html

  5. voxpopulism Says:

    Wow, thanks Brenda!

    This article is almost exactly what I had in mind for this post before the sleep demons told me to wrap it up early….

  6. LH Says:

    I would dig up Regarding The Pain of Others.

  7. Michael Lista Says:

    What a great article; and well written. Though I wonder if something a little more sinister isn’t going on. The author contends that these photographs are “asking if these are people, like us.” I worry the most explicit of these images may be answering that question, and not in the affirmative. Here’s a little thought experiment: if the earthquake had struck “us,” say as “The Big One” in San Francisco, a state-leveling 10 pointer, instead of Haiti last week, would we be seeing images of equal horror? Would we see half-naked suburban children with crushed limbs on the evening news? Pregnant white women five-days dead beings shoveled into dump trucks by a backhoe? I suspect not. Why? Because their humanity is a given to the average western consumer of media? Maybe. A more practical explanation is that no editor, producer, or publisher would ever allow the photographs of white Californian bodies to be similarly shown. I sort of worry that there’s a twisted economy of humanitarianism going on here, that full access to their gore is the price of our altruism. It’s precisely because we don’t have to extend them the same courtesies as those of whose humanity we’re certain that we’re seeing these images. The fact that the statistics, the “standard metrics” the author talks about, don’t work on us when it comes to Haiti should scare the shit out of us because it belies a deep failure of imagination. And I worry that the license the media is taking is less an appeal to our better angels than a rare indulgence of our worst appetites. It’s as if we’re saying “Keep your stats; show us the blood and we’ll show you the money. “


  8. I was going to reply to this post, but Michael’s said most of what I had in mind.

    I’ll just add this: the Globe story is ONE STORY, one way of looking at what’s happened and what the situation was like before it happened. Is there really a shortage of “blood n shit” pain being portrayed in the media? I ask this question not quite rhetorically, as I don’t watch TV and rarely read newspapers; I get most of my news from CBC radio. And on CBC, I don’t hear anyone “kidding themselves” about Haitian realities, past and present. I’m hearing incredibly nuanced and varied coverage, everything from the history of the nation to the very sort of immediate, on-the-ground reportage whose lack Jake’s lamenting. I don’t hear anything about “return to prosperity”; I hear: the situation was brutal here before, now it’s cataclysmic. The money’s pouring in, man, help is coming; we don’t need pictures of weeping and wailing, corpses and carnage to make us want to give, if only because we’ve all seen it before.

  9. voxpopulism Says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Zach Wells, an object lesson in the importance of public radio.


  10. […] post at VoxPopulism, however, questions whether before-and-after photographs, taken from satellites, of infrastructure and buildings are useful. The blogger finds, much as I […]


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