Friday, August 29, 2008

Humanitarian crisis and human dignity: it all depends on who owns the camera.

Tropical Storm and soon-to-be-Hurricane Gustav has already killed dozens of people in Haiti, is menacing Jamaica, and will soon be heading up to Houston or — please God make it change course — New Orleans, where WB enjoyed a crawfish boil in the still-battered Ninth Ward just last spring. NOLA holds a precious place in our hearts, especially for WB contributor/Common Ground volunteer 45rpm and her Significant Other, but in a culture that frames the news in a box only the size of the continental U.S., sometimes we all need to remember that high water destroys lives everywhere. Half a world away, the situation looks like this:

And although we'd like to say that the main purpose of this post is to stress solidarity with fellow human beings in suffering, it's not. And that's because, in this CNN report's opening seconds, while a child's half-nakedness is "acceptable nudity" by virtue of the child's innocence, the network has also chosen to show, unedited or blurred, an elderly woman's exposed breast. She is provided no professional or personal courtesy to preserve her modesty; because she's just "a villager in India" and thus an exotic Other, her gaunt exposed body is filmed and then displayed to the world. It's always been this way, as any former grade-school reader of dusty old National Geographic issues knows.

Now, a lot of very "logical" and normalizing explanations could be generated in a flurry: It's filmed how it happened. It shows the suffering even more. It demonstrates the chaos at the scene. It generates pity from viewers who will feel badly for the old woman. But the "it" in all of these rationales is just the last two letters in bullshit. As articulated by Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Laura Mulvey, the Gaze — a dynamic tension between who is looking and who is being looked at — boils down to a basic power relationship: the powerful may gaze at will, and the powerless have no control over what form the Gaze will take.

In other words, if the boat carrying CNN's own reporter, Sara Sidner, were to capsize, or if the villagers rightfully chose to toss her and her camera operator overboard to make room for the actual villagers needing rescue, and she struggled and lost her top in the scuffle, there'd be not half a second of footage shown of the American woman's exposed breasts. Guaranteed.

Humanitarian crises are ugly, raw, and always undignified. But the same standards of undignity need to apply to all victims, all the time, everywhere.

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