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.