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Making it real

Thanks to Photojournalism Links (O excellent blog that it is), I found a thought-provoking essay on reactions to graphic photos from Haiti, at the American Journalism Review.

I could (and probably will) write many things in response to that essay, but for now I’m going to curb my enthusiasm and explore a tangent. That tangent arises here:

[The photographer Patrick] Farrell once again was dispatched to Port-au-Prince right after the earthquake to document fresh heartache. “I thought [the quake] was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I was thinking if it gets worse than this, it’s the end of the world,” he says. “You can’t tune it out; until you’re looking at your pictures on the computer, you’re thinking this is a movie, it isn’t real.”

I pick this out because it both echoes and contradicts Susan Sontag, in On Photography, who continually insists that photographs make reality real, or are more real than reality, and also says this:

It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.

Well, heck, since I’m quoting people, why not quote me? In reconsidering On Photography, I made this point:

But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film.

And this is exactly what Farrell is saying: that the events, the sights, did not seem real. But curiously, he then underscores Sontag’s broader point, in saying that the things he saw seemed unreal until he saw his own photographs.

What’s up with that? How do photographs become more real than the evidence of our own eyes?

We’re creatures of memory. Time keeps on flowing past us; in a sense, everything we see, we see in memory. Living in the present, that infinitely thin slice of time, is an impossibility. Savouring any experience—Bob Dylan’s incomparable August 23, 2003 performance of “High Water (for Charley Patton),” say—means, primarily, to reflect on how good it was, instants after it happens.

And experiencing a walk through Port-au-Prince, or any other scene of disaster, means to recall each sight moments after seeing it, to question the evidence of your own eyes, and to distrust the tricks of memory. Could it really have been that bad? Couldn’t that have been something else, in the rubble? These things, they only happen in the movies, right?

Until you see the photographic evidence, which proves your memory accurate. Then the pictures make it real.

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