Print Edition - 2015-05-31  |  Free the Words

A thousand words

  • Words & echoes
  • Pictures show disasters, the plight of victims, and the nature and semiotics of humans reaching out to affected areas
- Abhi Subedi
A thousand words

May 30, 2015-

Hundreds of earthquake photographs printed in the broadsheet papers, posted on social media, and shown on television screens have begun to speak a third language that is not yet, and will not be so easily, perceived. A combination of personalities, disaster, and misery creates this third meaning. I have been watching, taking, cutting, and downloading eloquent photographs of the earthquake. There are different dimensions to them.

Three dimensions

The first phase depicts a picture of sheer disaster, raw and horrid. The misery of earthquake victims reported by our brilliant media, and its daring and creative photographers, is a direct and unalloyed visual message. They show no government, no relief aid reaching out there.

The second batch of photographs is more pervasive. It includes photos of a bigger land disaster, though not of the proportion of the Chinese disaster—a magnitude 8 quake which struck Wenchuan County in Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 and caught remote human settlements in a trap. The visuals of the quake taken from helicopters and foreign rescue missions’ land and air travels make for sensational photography.

The third batch of photography shows humans, helmeted party leaders, rescue workers, and volunteers helping victims build temporary shades. You can easily distinguish the victim party from the visiting party because of the rescuers’ accoutrements. This batch shows visuals from easily-accessible sites. The remote sensing process and the discovery of cut-off affected areas have not yet been implemented. This is a separate topic. In photographs such as those of people leaving the metropolis for the countryside, we see symbol-laden gestures.

This phase is both decisive and worrying. My friends in Europe, elsewhere in South Asia, Japan, and the us have naturally been interpreting these photographs and images, and writing to me. One Japanese friend sent me eloquent photographs recovered from the albums of families after the magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. The thrust of his interpretation, as Japanese Zen lingo would go, was based on satori, a sudden revelation, which is a epiphany. But to quote my favourite interpreter, Susan Sontag, whose book On Photography (1977) always impresses me, photographs that show the other side, the downside, is ‘negative epiphany’. She cites the infamous photo of a naked Vietnamese girl rushing towards the camera, fleeing American napalm bombs during the Vietnam war. That single photograph awakened the American population to the reality of the war like nothing before. But the agency was human.

Negative epiphany

Seeing visuals of disasters, I have come to believe that they reveal negative epiphany when humans are wrongly involved in them. That is a sad irony. Human agencies are our only liberating features, but if they are not managed well, if they start stealing the money donated for victims and putting aggrandisements of so-called superiors, they create conditions for negative epiphany. Haiti has generated many serious studies, so have some South Asian disasters, including earthquakes. The example of Haiti shows that tremendous amount of aid came without making any significant changes. The government was changed under pressure; hovels were made, which became permanent homes. The image of Haitian negativity, a patronising perception, was not corrected.

My Japanese friend, for some reason, sent me two articles featuring photos of the Haiti and the Japan tsunami. He has said nothing about them. The photos of Haiti are very powerful and artistic feats of photojournalism. Humans coming out of the rubble and mothers touching their loved ones, emerging from the earth with a mood of defiance are no less important than the images of protagonists in Greek tragedies who defy fate.   

The Nepal earthquake has floated disconcerting visuals of various natures. The most striking feature of these visuals is the disturbing combination of humans, their spaces and residences. The other aspect is the simultaneous juxtaposition of cities with the countryside. In such combinations, like the Haitians, victims show dignity and a sense of humiliation having to stand in a mismanaged queue for rahat. In the words of writer and media analyst Kishor Nepal, such conditions have arisen as a result of the state-managed and so-called agency-managed groups not reaching out, or if at all, only for their own aggrandisement.  

Photos as a timeline

Photographs that speak like art will emerge in the course of time. People’s traumatised expressions might begin to appear. Now, the next phase is the predominance of photography. This earthquake has hit the Nepal Mandala, destroying very important heritage sites. Naturally, the city features in most photos. The countryside is depicted as levelled villages that look similar. But one other kind of visual has also been appearing, as in the case of the Langtang erosion and the Kaligandaki landslide damming the river water. Though we can say that we are spared the horrible natural disaster.

We can use these photo features to study the timeline in the disaster narrative and the role of the people where we see the involvement of the state, donors, and volunteers. Reports of even Red Cross-managed food being declared unhealthy by the National Human Rights Commission and the expenses of international agencies, including the UN, being spent more on paying their officials than on the actual victims, open up other aspects of the discourse. I do not want to go into this subject. But the thrust of my argument is that Nepalis and friends of Nepal should not ignore the photo features that are flooding the media within Nepal and outside. Photos show disasters, the plight of victims, nature, and the semiotics of humans reaching out to affected areas. As photographs are the most and the only eloquent features of this disaster, we can study them and see whither we are moving with the disaster, human misery saving human dignity.

Published: 31-05-2015 07:22

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