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Letters to the Editor
Where Images Fail: Newtown Connecticut

A few weeks ago, Chicago-based contributor, Randal Miller, addressed the role of images in relation to national tragedy — arguing that the images of horror and loss perpetuated by the media do little to incite lasting change — in a piece for DailyServing entitled Where Images Fail: Newtown Connecticut.

Today we are sharing some responses that came through our media partner, Art Practical, who republished the article. The letters below articulate a valid counterpoint to Miller’s article on a topic worth a continued consideration. Images of those suffering after a mass shooting such as this fail to show the actual horror and carnage left when one sees twenty dead children riddled with bullets. The images of those grieving perpetuate fear of the inexplicable rather than reality — showing the sorrow of those experiencing the aftermath not the actual trauma of the action — leaving one to feel greif and sympathy, the emotion often expressed through press imagery. They do not depict the actual horror. A writer from the New York Times interviewed many of the first responders to Sandy Hook Elementary, which is a vivid portrayal of what trauma actually looks like, without an image present.

I am not advocating for the press to show images from the hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary. I am saying that when you hear accounts by ER surgeons, or those who have laid their own child to rest with wounds that are not even deserving of a battlefield, you are reminded as to how much is lost in the images of those grieving after a mass shooting. Because press images fail to properly tell the story of those who have lost their lives, we fail to actually connect to the reality of these events. The images after a mass shooting reiterate pain and suffering and could, in many cases, substitute any catastrophic event where someone experiences grief. That is where the images and stories of those who have experienced pain can change the dialogue — as Stephen Barton, survivor of the shooting in Aurora, is doing with his story. Images are more than capable of bringing change to a country that wants it, as the continued dialogue on gun safety over this last month has shown. However, the merits of the actual image do make a difference — they always have.

Julie Henson, Editor of DailyServing

 

Bringing gun control into the realm of aesthetics
BY CHRISTIAN L. FROCK AND AARON STIENSTRA
JAN 25 2013
In response to Where Images Fail: Newtown, Connecticut.

Dear Editor,

We appreciated Randall Miller’s article “Where Images Fail: Newtown Connecticut” in Issue 4.7/Tender Neutrality. Miller’s attempt to bring the discussion around gun control into the realm of aesthetics is compelling, though we struggle with his main point around the failure of images to incite action.

Miller vividly describes and compares secondary images taken in the aftermath of Newtown with primary images from September 11 and Abu Ghraib. But are these direct correlations? We have seen no postmortem images of the victims or video from the crime in progress. The suggestion is horrifying, we know, but so too is the fact that we rarely see any graphic images from the gun violence epidemic. Why is this? A collective sense of decorum dictates that it is in bad taste or exploitive to traffic such images. As such, we are provided mediated visual information and our perception of violence is distanced.

Historically, people have been spurred to action when confronted with direct images of brutality. The 1955 murder of Emmett Till is largely credited with mobilizing the civil rights movement because his mother Mamie Till released pictures of her child’s remains to the media, so the world could see what he endured. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, it was suggested that perhaps one of the Sandy Hook families might follow Till’s example. In this spirit, Veronique Pozner, mother to slain six-year-old Noah Pozner, vividly described the state of her son’s remains in an articleoriginally published by the Dart Society, “journalists who cover violence.” Noah was shot eleven times, once in the face. When Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy visited Pozner in the funeral home, she took him to see Noah’s open casket because she “needed the violence to have a face for him, in the event that legislation would someday cross his desk.”

Surely the American public would be compelled to respond to graphic images of the senseless violence of the Newtown shootings —or Columbine High School, or Virginia Tech or the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Interestingly, a group of gun advocates has written a petition onwww.whitehouse.gov to demand the release of images from the Newtown massacre, in the interest of protecting their right to bear arms, but it is more likely that these images would play a greater role in lobbying for gun control legislation.

Given Miller’s prompt to consider the larger role of images as the aesthetic property of cultural memory, we hope the creative community will recognize they have a powerful role to play in this fight. Look to the Art Workers Coalition 1969 poster And babies featuring war photographer Ronald L. Haeberle’s image of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. This shocking image presented another atrocity for the world to see, in the tradition of Mamie Till’s sorrow and rage. It is widely considered the most successful anti-war poster of its era. Artists made it and artists propelled it.

Veronique Pozner’s description of her child’s remains is as bold an image as we will ever “see” in today’s media. It is also a call to action and the creative community has every skill needed to bear witness, writ large. Artists, writers, poets, musicians, photographers, performers, curators, and designers, et al: However we can do it is one more way it needs to be done.

Christian L. Frock
Independent Curator and Writer, Invisible Venue

Aaron Stienstra
Design Director, The Focal Point
Pro-bono Designer for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

Awakening viewers to the actuality of suffering and pain
BY STEPHEN F. EISENMAN, PH.D.
JAN 26 2013

In response to Where Images Fail: Newtown, Connecticut.

Dear Editor,

I was glad to see the article, and subsequent letters about the shootings in Newtown and the possible role of images in abating gun violence. I am however afraid that images of grief—especially those found in the mainstream media—tend to repeat longstanding formulas of pathos and thus have little effect on the debate about gun control or the American culture of violence. Ostentatious grief—a mother’s tears for her son, a wife’s for her husband, a son’s for his father— are a feature of Western art and representation since antiquity, and tend to be affirmative; that is, they validate preexisting ideas about family, devotion, responsibility and duty. Their capacity to move people to actually act in the world is probably very small.

On the other hand, certain images of violence that abjure beauty, symbolism, and archetype, can awaken viewers to the actuality of suffering and pain. In the case of the Vietnam War this was certainly the case, as Christian L. Frock and Aaron Stienstra note in their letter. I agree with them that published images of Newtown children shot three, four, ten times would do far more to advance the cause of gun control than images of the grief stricken, or online petitions to ban assault style weapons. The possession and use of guns has to be made ugly, gross, deviant, and disgusting for the culture of guns and violence in the U.S. to finally weaken and die.

Stephen F. Eisenman
Professor of Art History, Northwestern University
(author, The Abu Ghraib Effect)

 

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