Will you help us hit our goal?

35.1 C
Varanasi
Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Pandemic Porn: Countering the Western media gaze

By hawking horrific images of death and dying, the Western media’s coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in  Bharat, particular the second wave, exposes several fragile fault lines of contemporary global journalism—including pervasive and unquestioned double standards in upholding the yardsticks of sensitivity and non-invasiveness in the context of non-Western cultures. 

A lie repeated often enough in the face of a tragedy becomes the truth. Ironically, despite the truth being camouflaged, it reveals itself through fissures, cracks, and crevices. In every tragedy lurks a possibility for radical change. The pandemic gloom and doom in our country is an opportunity to speak up about a pressing issue that has been rearing its head ad nauseam ever since the COVID-19  second wave erupted in the country—the mindless and endless  ‘hawking’ of horrific images of dead bodies being burnt in crematoria.

Everybody loves a great disaster. Aptly termed “tragedy, disaster or pandemic porn,” these horrific images have twisted a tragedy or disaster into a byte-sized, marketable commodity.  Specifically, in the second wave of COVID-19, these graphic images of photographs of funeral pyres from  India are reportedly selling at Rs. 23,000 on Getty Images, the British-American visual media company headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

According to a report in Opindia, “Photographs of tragic funeral pyres, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have now become valuable commodities, bought and sold in the Western press.” The report also says that Getty Images hosts multiple funeral pyre images on their website, each more sensational than the other. Dead bodies stacked outside the crematoria, families of the deceased mourning their loved ones to funeral pyres ablaze with the orange tongues of flame soaring skywards and casting a surreal glow on the landscape—everything grabs eyeballs and sells.

Getty images thus serves as a one-stop shop for Western media agencies to source their  COVID-19 “tragedy porn” images in three sizes—medium, large and small—with prices ranging from Rs. 7000, Rs. 14,000 and Rs. 23,000. Ever resourceful and innovative, photographers from Getty Images and those from India (independent photographers and those associated with media house) also employ drone photography to get a bird’s eye view of the crematoria that apparently attracts overwhelming voyeuristic attention and gaze.

“Tragedy porn is a good business model for Western media and that is why they engage in it. It’s good for the publishers publishing it, the writers writing it, and the photographers providing the tragic images for the article. It just does nothing for the person actually suffering, who will continue to suffer, his tragedy forever immortalized in some Western media article,” writes Opindia.

Not to be left behind in amplifying and sensationalizing the pandemic porn, our very own Barkha Dutt, a  loyal and core team member of the “Lutyens cabal” parked herself outside crematoria and waxed eloquent about “among toughest moments I’ve reported ever, waiting with families at a mortuary in Civil Hospital, Surat, as they’re instructed to identify bodies wheeled up a ramp, to be taken away then for COVID protocol funerals. No goodbye hug, no touch, just- “He’s mine” from afar,” accompanied by lurid visuals of scenes from crematoria that clearly were intrusive and invasive of the privacy and grief of the bereaved families.  When was responsible ethical journalism eclipsed by the unapologetic need to turn a personal tragedy into propaganda and self-glorification?

Not to be outdone by the more glamorous and relatively recent Getty Images, the venerable Reuters, the British news agency, splashed the aerial photograph of the funeral pyres at crematoria shot by Danish Siddiqui,  Indian photojournalist and  Pulitzer prize-winning chief photographer of Reuters in India. He wrote, “ As India posted world record of COVID cases funeral pyres of people, who died due to the coronavirus disease were pictured at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, April 22, 2021.”His Twitter account also feature several suspiciously “heart-wrenching human interest stories” of relatives of COVID-19 infected patients and those affected—all at their most vulnerable moments.

Cremation is one of the means of disposing the bodies of the dead and is practiced largely by followers of Hindu dharma. Cremation is a sacred rite of passage that is grounded in sacrality and tradition. It is a solemn occasion that is most often private and restricted to close family and friends of the deceased. Sensitivity and dignity  (both of the deceased and the loved ones left behind) are sacrosanct. It is obvious that these principles were flagrantly flouted in the interests of voyeuristic and opportunistic photojournalism that smacked of irresponsibility and insensitivity.

“People all over the world died, and are still dying in large numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. But the vulturism and morbid obsession over their funeral pyres is somehow seen only in India, for white publications that could not really care to accord dignity to Indians, especially, to Hindus. While many complimented Danish for his heroism, Reuters milked the images of Hindus being cremated to the hilt.” writes Nupur Sharma.

Ironically, it’s the netizens who are asking the “tough questions and willing to engage in no-frills “fierce conversations” to provide the counter-narrative to the hegemonic discourse.   What is the purpose of reporting from crematoria? The first wave of the pandemic resulted in significant casualties in the US, Europe, and the UK.  Yet the Western media chose to gloss over it while selectively targeting Bharat and focusing on the funeral practices of one particular community.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin highlight the utter disregard for responsible reporting on the COVID-19 crisis in India in the Western media that has normalized invasion of privacy.  According to him, cremation is a very private ritual in Bharat.  Showing graphic images of bodies burning on pyres represented a horrible invasion of privacy, insensitivity, intrusiveness,  voyeuristic journalism, and ratings-driven media coverage that tantamounts to exploitative journalism that peddles human suffering.

In The Lurid Orientalism of Western Media, he writes that the reporting of the COVID-19 crisis in Bharat by the Western media has trivialized and breached one of the tenets of responsible journalism—sensitivity to the deceased and the bereaved.  While the Western media follows this rule in letter and spirit at home, they disregard and discard it while reporting on non-Western societies.

Chellaney incisively writes that despite half the global COVID-19 deaths occurring in the US and Europe, the Western media has cautiously and consciously avoided “harrowing” images of the tragedy. TV crews and journalists did not barge into hospitals and badger patients and their caregivers for “human interest stories” about their pain and anguish. However, this was a staple while reporting on the COVID-19 crisis in Bharat.  There was a  stark absence  of  remorse or compunction in caricaturing a “private grief into a public spectacle for Western consumption.” For example, the coverage of mass graves in New York City during the early COVID-19 fatalities featured sanitized images of misty boulevards.

“By contrast, India’s pandemic experience will be remembered for the haunting images of bodies burning on pyres – images that the Western media beamed around the world. The funerary fire is a classic trope in Western novels, travelogues, and paintings about India. By directing their cameras to the burning pyres, Western media outlets are satisfying their audience’s morbid fascination with the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead (even though this environmentally friendly practice is increasingly catching on in the West). Utterly ignored in this coverage is the fact that showing ghastly images of burning pyres is a grotesque and deeply disrespectful invasion of what is a very private affair in India,” writes Chellaney.

Truth matters. Context matters. Glorifying and sensationalizing the pandemic and its impact on people is a  worse tragedy than the biological disaster. By decontextualizing the images, it fetishes the pain of the people and objectifies them. Thus, they seem less “real “ as human beings and degenerate into larger-than-life cutouts. It is a tragedy for the sake of “entertainment”  and ignores, minimizes, trivializes, or glosses over the “real” issues in which the crisis is embedded. Whether it is the 24/7 beaming of the Twin Towers collapse, the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack,  the Daniel Pearl execution, or  Kevin Carter’s “iconic” photograph of a  starving young child in South Sudan watched over by a vulture—isn’t it time we asked ourselves the “difficult” dharmic question—In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing?

(Featured Image Source: OpIndia)


Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.

HinduPost is now on Telegram. For the best reports & opinions on issues concerning Hindu society, subscribe to HinduPost on Telegram.

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Articles

Sign up to receive HinduPost content in your inbox

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.