All links in this piece contain graphic images of death.
‘Must we celebrate [death’s] essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still so much we can do to fight it?’ asks Roland Barthes in his essay from Mythologies entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’. It would appear that a photograph that has been circulated on Facebook and Reddit, which has been reproduced by several (mostly American) media publications, would be doing just that. The photograph in question depicts a two Bangladeshis, they look like a couple, who are depicted half-buried in the dust and rubble of the recent factory disaster, embracing in death. The photographer was Talisma Akhter who took the image obviously with much personal bravery.
SEE THE IMAGE HERE.
This analysis deals instead with the way that this photograph has been viewed and disseminated in the West.
Nonetheless, I will not be reproducing this picture because its widespread circulation exposes many of the problems with our attitudes to disaster in the poorer nations of the world. While it’s true that we are sometimes presented with photographs of the dead in the aftermath of disasters in the Western world, they are rarely described as ‘hauntingly beautiful’ as they are here. Imagine photographs of a factory accident in, say, Ellesmere Port being described in the same way. The death of Others has become ours to aestheticise, and by turning this photograph into a work of art, we move towards celebrating death’s essence rather than fighting it.
It will be objected though, that the circulation of this photograph is accompanied by appeals to help raise money for the victims of this disaster. It must be asked then why this particular image is used. Akhter speaks of bodies that ‘were charred, like coal, or were only skeletons’. These images cannot be aestheticised because, such is their horror, there is very little that is recognisably human in them. Rather, in looking at the oppressed Other we select photographs that reinforce an ‘ambiguous myth of the human “community”, which serves as an alibi to a large part of our humanism’. We choose a photograph of a couple embracing in death, because love and death are ‘facts of nature, universal facts’. And, argues Barthes, this allows us to ignore the specific Historical context of the images, the socio-economic conditions that cause Bangladeshis to be treated as not human, as less than human. Hence the horror of the photograph becomes transfigured into safer terms, the romantic backstories of Reddit readers (see here) or even the photographer’s own observation that “the blood from the eyes of the man ran like a tear” (see the previous link to Time magazine). We create a fiction for ourselves that these people are humans just like us, when so many of the clothes we wear are directly implicated in ensuring they are dehumanised in a way that we cannot imagine, whose image is much more akin to those charred skeletons. People are not human everywhere in the same way, because for millions of people, part of their experience of humanity is asserting that humanity in the face of forces that ceaselessly try to rob them of their humanity.
Barthes describes these narratives that appeal to a superficial identity between Westerners and those we oppress as preventing us ‘by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical alienation introduces some “differences” which we shall here quite simply call “injustices”’. By stressing these identities, when we make appeals for the victims of a factory disaster in Bangladesh, so often we are appealing for ‘reform’ in working conditions there, to make their working conditions a little bit more like ours (but not too much, else we will lose our cheap clothes). After all, is work not part of our essential human nature? Could that not be us embracing in that factory? I suspect that in making these equivalences, by making appeals with these sorts of images, we continue to perpetuate the global system of oppression. ‘We know very well that work is “natural” just as long as it is “profitable”, and that in modifying the inevitability of profit, we shall perhaps one day modify the inevitability of labour’. Ultimately the circulation of this photograph ensures the inevitability of profit, by hiding the dehumanisation of Bangladeshi labourers under the experience of universal tragedy. How much less likely for us to face the ‘universal experience’ of embracing our lover, locked into an overcrowded, collapsing factory.