Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Violence and Graphic Imagery in Journalism and Fiction


I have had cause over the last year to think long and hard about the graphic depiction of violence and death, be it through images or words, in journalism and fiction. One reason for this is that my novel, Apocalypse Cow, has attracted comments for its violent scenes, some of which contain detailed descriptions. The other, and more significant, reason is that my journalism career has brought me into contact with many images of death.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a huge argument with a guy who was selling copies of Socialist Worker at Glasgow University over the issue he was waving around. The magazine cover carried the now-famous picture of the severed heads of three Serbs, with the boot of a Bosnian commander balanced atop one as it if were a football. I was outraged, in that way bolshie young students who think they know everything excel at, and accused him of using the image to sell more copies. His counter-argument, shouted at equal volume, ran that only through depicting the full horrors of war would people truly understand what we do to each other in the name or religion, politics and land.

Now, I believe I was wrong to get all aquiver.

Last year, when I was editing a website focusing on Somalia, virtually every day I received intensely graphic pictures of the conflict, usually without any warning in the subject line of the email. When I opened up the message, I would be confronted by huge, full-colour photographs of beheaded bodies, suicide bombers with their coiled and glistening entrails exposed and body parts scattered all around, and corpses displaying ragged entry and exit wounds. Every picture prompted a visceral reaction, and while I published only a select few, I always considered carefully whether I should share this feeling with the reading public.

There are several arguments for and against, and I feel the exploitation angle is the least convincing. Nobody likes to see such images, or at least nobody admits to liking it, and it usually causes a storm when such graphic violence is depicted. Why? After all, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

I believe that without such images, it is far too easy for people to turn their backs on the reality of a conflict, whether their government is involved or not. How many times have you read an article about dozens being killed in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu or civilians being shot in the crossfire in Afghanistan, yet kept on eating your bacon sandwich, perhaps shaking your head a little. It doesn’t touch you. You just don’t feel it.

As someone who has spent the last ten years making his living from the written word, this is going to sound like heresy, but often only a picture can prompt that gut reaction.  I believe the media should show more images from war zones, to serve as a salutary lesson of what people are actually doing to each other, often in our names, outside the safe confines of our apartment walls.

The Kenya Burning exhibition and book, which depicted the full scale of the bloody tribal-tinged violence that swept the country after disputed elections in December 2007, is a perfect example of how images of death and destruction can create a positive effect. While Kenya’s population is just under 40 million, only around 1,500 people died, so most didn’t witness the violence first hand. This exhibition gave them a chance to really feel it, and played a key role in creating the ‘never again’ attitude that is now prevalent among many Kenyans – most of whom didn’t understand the full consequences of their role in stoking the conflict until confronted with these disturbing pictures.

However, there is another side to the story: the narrative that relatives of those who had died would be traumatized by what they see. I understand this argument, and can see why opening a newspaper or website to see the body of a loved one would prompt gut-wrenching anguish. This is why it was a tough one to call when working on the website, and I erred on the side of caution. Also, in an accident or natural disaster, there is little point to showing the pictures. When the Kenyan minister George Saitoti’s helicopter came down recently, Kenyan media ran graphic pictures of burned bodies, but this served no purpose, as those pictures would never stop another mechanical failure.

Much the same argument applies in fiction. My book is violent, something that has freaked out some readers – who have no problem reading about death as long as they aren’t presented with the details. I find this censorious attitude odd. Writers go into exhaustive detail on every other aspect of human existence, and this is not only embraced, but expected. Yet when it comes to death, it only seems acceptable to describe the emotional impact rather than the physical process.

My theory is that people rationalize their distaste for images or graphic descriptions of violence. They will call it exploitative, or gratuitous or plain tasteless. Ultimately, however, it is about our fear of death. We don’t like to be reminded of how fragile we are; how, in the end we are made up of flesh, bone, tissue and blood. It is hard to reconcile our rich inner lives, our concepts of self and soul, with the precarious biology of our bodies, which can be unravelled at any moment. Most of us can’t even bear seeing others in the nude, as evidenced by the repeated arrest of the naked rambler in Scotland, never mind digging deeper into the bodies that are so indistinguishable from one another and thus realizing we are perhaps not quite as individual or special as we thought.

Personally, I find it more distasteful when books and films are full of death, yet it is glossed over, the impact of the most profound thing that can happen to a human diluted by the audience being allowed to look away at the crucial moment. Glamorization of violence can only happen when the reader or viewer is allowed to enjoy the crash-bang-wallop action without being shown the full horror of violence. Death, particularly violent death, is bloody, horrific, disgusting and cruel. I believe it should be portrayed as such, otherwise we are shirking our responsibility to depict human existence as it is and allowing people to revel in the ‘glorious’ aspects of war or combat in any form.

Yes, depictions of graphic violence are disturbing, and so they should be. Aside from reminding us of our mortality, our uncomfortable reactions remind us of the basic human decency that prevents most of us from killing. That, in itself, is surely a worthwhile goal.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Apocalypse Cow, dead children and John Gummer

I must be showing my age – and not just in the grey hairs, slowing legs that lead me to clog a few more people on the football field and inability to remember the location of my phone and keys for more than five seconds.

I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers of Apocalypse Cow were disturbed by one particular scene, in which the young child of a politician is killed live on television during a publicity stunt aimed at keeping consumers eating meat as the zombie virus spreads through Britain’s livestock. While it may seem gratuitous to readers who are not as advanced in years as I am, it is there for a very specific reason, one which stretches back to the height of the Mad Cow crisis in the UK.

In 1990, as Brits got themselves into a tizzy over the likelihood of contracting BSE (in its human form CJD) from eating infected beef, John Selwyn Gummer, at the time Agriculture Minister for the Tory government, staged a press event during which he tried to feed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger. Only days before a cat had died of a BSE-like disease, showing that the virus could mutate, and the government had banned humans from eating beef offal.

His intention was to ease public fears over British beef. Instead, he ended up being vilified for his PR stunt, although he continued to defend his actions years later and his daughter did not contract CJD. In retrospect, the chances of her contracting any illness were very slim, and to be fair he did eat the burger himself, but he essentially took a chance with her daughter’s welfare in the hope of gaining political capital. Children have long been tools in the political game, wheeled out regularly to fluff up a politician's family credentials and gain votes, but that was taking it a bit too far. Gummer got away with it. The politician in my book doesn't.

Anyway, this is the problem with satire. If readers don’t actually know of the event you are parodying – and that is obviously a danger if you are drawing on something that happened 22 years ago – then they are going to miss the whole point of the scene and, as appears to be the case with my book, suspect the author is just a sadistic swine who enjoys bumping off children on page.

Of course, The Hunger Games is full of children being slaughtered in various nasty ways, and most people are fine with that because they understand there is some message behind it. Perhaps I should go down the Monty Python route in future, and flash a large ‘SATIRE’ sign across the page with a footnote explaining what I’m doing. Or maybe not.

I have also half-written a blog post on depictions of graphic violence in the media, books and films, as it has been something I have thinking about a lot given both the nature of my book and long history of working in journalism dealing with rather nasty conflicts. I need to chew on it a bit longer, but will post it soon. The basic gist of it is looking at why we don't like to see pictures of dead bodies, and why people are offended by descriptions of death in novels - even though novelists explore and describe everything else in great detail.