When we see death

Zach Davis

The other day, the George Polk Award, a top American journalism award, went to an anonymous person who shot a video – probably with a camera phone – of a woman dying of a bullet wound and posted it on YouTube.
The woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was an Iranian woman killed in June during a protest of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. She was shot by a militiaman as she stood and watched protestors in the street. Someone in the crowd had a portable video recorder and started filming as she collapsed.
The video, which you can see on YouTube, has been hailed as an iconic image of the Iranian protests, and it made Neda both a martyr and the face of the recent resistance.
I went to YouTube to see the award-winning video. It shows Neda lying on the ground, looking confused as people mill around her. A man tries to staunch the wound in her chest. The cameraman moves around to get a good shot of her face, and we see it covered in blood.
There’s more to the video, but I couldn’t watch past that. Watching her die, as some 800,000 other people have on YouTube, felt like such an invasion.
We’ve all seen these iconic images of violence – pictures and videos that made us shiver and cringe and keep watching. They draw some of their power from their incredibly disturbing subject matter.
Think of the famous photograph of an execution during the Vietnam War, in which we see a general pointing his revolver at the head of a man with a bashed-in face who’s just standing there, waiting to die. Think of the video that made the rounds on YouTube showing an innocent boy beaten to death with planks of wood during a gang fight.
It’s terribly sad that those victims will be forever linked with the grisly, ugly images of their death. Neda Agah-Soltan was a singer who had recently bought a piano for her house but died before it could be delivered. She worked at her family’s travel agency and was learning Turkish so she could take Iranian tour groups to Turkey.
However, we will not remember Neda the person, we’ll remember Neda the image, wide-eyed and blood-spattered. Derrion Albert, the victim of gang violence, was an honor student who loved computers, but when we think of him, all we’ll see is his head, bludgeoned repeatedly by gangbangers wielding two-by-fours.
In a world in which everyone is so careful with their image, so conscious of how they look, the Nedas and Derrions of the world are doomed to be remembered for the worst moment of their lives.
And they had no choice. An onlooker with a camera phone made that decision for them; Long Island University supported that decision by conferring the coveted Polk and pronouncing the video excellent journalism.
That feels so wrong to me. It feels like, every time we watch those videos, we desecrate their lives and memories a little bit more.
I tried to imagine what I would have done if I had been on the same street when Neda was shot. Ask yourself – what would you do in that situation? I am certain I wouldn’t have pulled out my camera phone and started recording. It disgusts me that there are those among us who react to seeing a fellow human in distress with, “I need to get this on tape!”
And that leads me to a bigger concern: Why don’t we care about seeing images of dead bodies anymore? I was talking with my mom about the Neda video, and she brought up the news coverage of the Haitian earthquake. Videos shown on the news clearly depicted dead bodies littering the streets.
She said this shocked her, because she couldn’t remember when news stations had ever shown images of corpses before; it certainly didn’t happen during the Vietnam War, and even during the Iraq War, President Bush banned the press from showing photos of dead soldiers’ flag-draped coffins.
Initially, I thought I could see where the news agencies were coming from. We humans are a very visual species. The phrase “seeing is believing” didn’t get to be a truism for nothing – we respond to images more strongly than almost any other kind of stimuli.
Showing images of death is a very powerful way to communicate the devastating consequences of an event. I can read that more than 100,000 people are dead in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, but for some reason, seeing those dead bodies connects me to Haiti’s plight in a way reading the words just can’t.
But is that a good thing? In the short term, seeing Haitians suffer might lead me to volunteer or give money to recovery efforts. That’s always been the way charities for malnourished Third World children operate – they show you pictures of emaciated children to play on your heartstrings.
I worry that in the long term, seeing corpses everywhere will desensitize us to the horrors that go on around us. Already, I find myself having a hard time caring when I read about murders or disasters. I’m so used to hearing about them, I find it hard to muster much sympathy or compassion, and that terrifies me.
If we’ve reached the point where only invasive and horrifying images can capture our attention, what happens when we become desensitized to those too?
Ultimately, though, this is my concern. If we get used to seeing death, and remain unbothered by pictures of executions or videos of spurting blood, we’ll forget what a gift life really is. It’s beautiful that we all get a chance to coexist on this planet, and losing sight of that would be a tragedy of the highest order.