Death as Contributing Background

The body is lifeless — embedded into the concrete and dust that once was a school. Framing the faceless gray form, a handful of Chinese soldiers in green camouflage gently sweep the ground around her. There are five soldiers, two with shovels, one pointing at an object inches away from a limp hand. The viewer is forced to look down upon shadows and rubble. We do not know this person. She is one of thousands of victims from the earthquake that shook China to its core two weeks ago.

The image, published in the New York Times, inflicts upon us a burden that weighs heavily on the psyche. A traumatic memory etched on the conscience. This is not a picture of rescue; it is a farewell. In a single frame, we see the futility of a nation frozen and fixed in time — one that exceeds the capacity of verbal expression.

Photography of this nature resists the rhetoric of control and rational explanation. It presses the act of witnessing such an event through the media into a theater of spectacle erupting onto the public sphere of global opinion. The image leaves us as helpless as the soldiers clearing concrete and steel.

Connecting Context with Memory

The function of photography is to connect context with memory — to make the past continue into the present and future. As Allan deSouza notes,

Photography is now so vital to memory, as a safeguard that the past will not be erased … photographs have become so central to the process of remembering — not necessarily private, but certainly collective.

Suzanne Lacy and Pilar Riano-Alcala conceive of memory as “a never-ending source of collective positioning.” The idea of positioning certain events as cultural and collective memories presumes that some images will be remembered while others fade into obscurity.

Photographs function, as Mortimer Adler suggests, through a constellation of formal signs –– those meanings we come to know as true and irrefutable in relation to the whole of the content. The picture symbolizes a definitive force and emotional response that cannot be suppressed. The picture becomes a reference point for past representations of suffering, both natural and human made.

There are also ideological implications that become attached to such images. From a semiotic perspective, the soldiers signify the index of state authority. The soldiers perform dutifully with precision. The dead woman buried in rubble is not the central focus of this image; it is a shovel and the soldier pointing to an object. The shovel points toward the work at hand — an indexical referent to a recovering nation. And what is it that the soldier seems to be pointing at? A wedding ring? We are left guessing.

Honoring the Value of a Life?

Death is symbolic as the antithesis of life –– humility symbolized by the monotony of clearing rubble around the exposed corpse. The symbolic action of this image is resolutely rhetorical in that it reminds us that one day we will all be dead. What remains, meanwhile, is to only wonder when and how this moment may come for us. For Barthes, photography is ultimately an “elegiac” art – a form of expression that brings into focus the space and time between the living and the dead.

The symbolic relation between life and death is non-negotiable. Looking at the lifeless form again begs the question of how a person might want to be remembered in life and in death. The photograph, especially in the way the body is framed as contributing background, plays down the significance of this young woman’s life. She is merely an element, albeit an important one, in the frame as the soldiers work dutifully around her. There is a value judgment being made in this image that assumes indifference toward the dignity of the individual and how her short life will be remembered.

Ultimately, every image is bound to the ethical choices and core beliefs a photographer makes in representing life.

Although this image is, at first glance, emotionally compelling, further reflection on treating death as contributing background, and as a consequence of living, undermines the integrity of the human being. What this picture speaks to, then, is more about getting on with life, than about celebrating and honoring the value of a human life as it is and was.


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