The failure of photography in tragedies beyond 9/11

For the last two weeks, I have been blogging about photography and the events of 9/11. First, I explored how the attacks have become something of a milestone marking major changes in the business and culture of photography. Then I pondered how those same events helped me understand my own process as a photographer. This week, I am considering what photography fails to do when it comes to tragedies, like 9/11.

Let me say right up front that anything I write implies no disrespect to those who died on 9/11 (or their families who were left behind.) Losing a loved one is a tragedy and to experience such a loss so dramatically and publicly makes the loss that much harder to bear. In total, almost 3,000 died in the attacks of 9/11at the sites of the attacks in Washington, DC, New York City and Shanksville, PA.

Did you know that about that many people died across the United States in traffic accidents last month? While the number of traffic deaths annually is on the decline, in 2007 there were 41,059 highway fatalities and 2008 there were 37,261 highway fatalities. Even more amazing is the fact that alcohol was factor in about one third of those preventable deaths. That fact continually amazes me.

Did you know that nearly that many people, 3,000, die in firearm-related deaths every month in the United States? In 2007 alone 31,224 people died in firearm-related deaths in America.

Nearly twice that many deaths, nearly 6,000, occur each year during the rain and floods that repeatedly devastate the low-lying and densely populated nation of Bangladesh.

At the peak of the violence in the ongoing Iraq war, approximately that many people were dying each month.

In 2010, the annual death toll in drug-related violence rose to 3,000, in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, the place that has been the hardest hit by the drug war in Mexico.

In 2003, nearly 3,000 died each month in France’s monster heat wave. This past summer, 3,000 died over the three months during to another summer heat wave in France.

I can go on but you get the idea.

The nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks of September 11th became the center of a media tidal wave driven largely by photographs of the dead (and actual imagery of the attacks.) The people who died in those “other” situations I listed above are just as missed by their family and friends, but their deaths were largely unheralded, except by those same immediate family and friends.

Those who die in traffic accidents, which are largely preventable deaths, especially when alcohol is involved, they are largely faceless because they die one or two or three people at a time. Similarly, their deaths happen in thousands of different places, whether in big cities like New York or in small towns like Shanksville, PA. In nearly all cases, most of those same traffic deaths happen outside of the intense media spotlight that is at the core of much of life in NYC.

This has always been one of photography’s failures, though the events have 9/11 have made that limitation even more apparent. I am not sure a “solution” exists to the problem, other than simple awareness, awareness that should prompt us to say something like, who else is suffering dying at the same time and in the same numbers?

The imagery of 9/11 has become is so omnipresent that it has blocked out many other tragic losses of life. Those deaths that we “witness,” as they happen (through documentary photographs) and/or deaths we relive shortly thereafter, as portraits of the dead, are important (such as the deaths on 9/11.) On the other hand, to paraphrase an old philosophical quandary, if a person dies outside of a media centric place, is their death (and the life before that) any less important?

2 responses to “The failure of photography in tragedies beyond 9/11”

  1. It has always been that some people’s death – and life – garnered more attention than others’. The king’s death was news. Someone like me? Not so much. The Titanic sinks? Stop the presses. My great-uncle Walt kicks the bucket? Nah.

    Part of this dynamic is about status (of course the king matters more than the peasant) and part of it is about narrative drive (hubris punished has been a favorite bedtime story since the Greeks).

    What interests me is the way the camera changed the equation. In a way, its very arrival is what makes your musings even possible. If it’s a “democratic” medium that everyone participates in, why doesn’t everyone’s life – and death – get equal play?

    Because status and narrative drive still matter? Part of what we’re saying here is that New York stockbrokers “matter” more than Bangladeshis or Iraqis or Mexicans. And the other part is that 9/11 is a great story, complete with villains and innocents. Traffic fatalities are just pointless.

    Even so, I’d venture that, post-camera, we get more information about the people who don’t “matter” than we ever did before.

  2. Part of my point is that yes, “Traffic fatalities are just pointless” but they are also clearly preventable. The fact that we do not “see” them as we see the victims of 9/11 is the way we ignore them (and let the pointless deaths continue.)

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