A post written by Ellan Baker and Susan Wardell, based on an ANTH424 assignment on ‘visual images and the communication of suffering and evil’.
On March 19th 2020, social media and news sites were flooded with images of military trucks, moving the dead out of the overwhelmed small Italian city of Bergamo, for cremation elsewhere [i]. Europe had replaced China as a new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Northern Italy is known for having small towns and tightly-knit communities, as well as for the beautiful scenery, cuisine and fashion which attract both domestic and international tourists iv. It was largely through travel and social interaction, that the new strain of coronavirus (named SARS-CoV-2) was spreading. Places like Bergamo, a city of just over 100,000 residents, had little time to prepare iii ii.
Picturing the scale of loss
At the time that images of the crematory trucks were released, Italy was in an exponential climb in the number of cases. The number of deaths had now become a few hundred a day, despite best efforts of intervention and prevention. On March 19th, total fatalities had reached 3,405 and were still increasing vi.
As the pandemic spread, people all over the world took in this type of numerical information, to make sense of what was happening v . Rates of spread, death tolls, graphs and spreadsheets… these were forms of knowledge about the reality of Covid-19, which were also somewhat removed from acknowledgements of the level of human suffering it was creating, with every new case, and with every death of a unique human person that those numbers represented.
In this blog we discuss the ideas that images, as a different way of communicating suffering and loss, can help to rehumanise topics such as this. We argue they provide understanding of the scale of devastation in a different way than numbers do, and can be part of catalysing social change because of this.
Echoes of (an invisible) war
Tightly packed, the military-style trucks are moving in single file down the street. The arrangement of the trucks on the empty street has a ceremonial feel; dark colours, and a string of lights. The road is clearly in an everyday residential area, with a shop, carpark and green field visible alongside. But here it becomes a platform for procession vii.
The escort occurred at night – the image taken at 9:28pm – almost as if they needed to hide the moving of the dead, and shelter the living population vii. Was the suffering so great, that it could not be experienced during the day? Like the living, the day is sheltered from agony; maintaining its symbolic goodness, while night is reserved for pain.
In the photo there are many trucks, and within each truck, there are many bodies vii. The photo both is and isn’t about numbers. The impact of this photo is largely because the trucks are in fact innumerable, their line extends out both sides of the frame of the photograph. It asks us to recognise the scale of loss without making us, or letting us, count and quantify. It evokes the horror of scale, without relying on numbers. It makes an affective connection to the topic, without being explicit.
The image of a fleet of military trucks can’t help but raise the ghosts of war; historical echoes that will have different levels of feeling attached for different viewers, in different places. At very least, the string of large trucks connotes a high number of casualties, and yet there is a disjunct for the viewer, since absent from the still and tidy environment they move through is any evidence of danger or threat. The toll is being counted, truck by truck, but the enemy itself is a ghostly absence; an invisible virus, impossible to see or to conceptualise, except through its effects.
Watching from afar
At this time this photo was taken and posted, New Zealand and many other countries felt far from the ‘front line’. The need to take action here was not yet evident. So we watched the situation unfold through images like this, but even as we did, the virus exponentially spread once again, leaving tremendous amounts of uncertainty in its wake iii
The now-famous images of these trucks did not come, in the first instance, from scientists, journalists, or other authoritative communicators. Rather they appeared in the often informal domain of social media. The context of apartments opposite implies that this photo too is taken from an apartment window, looking down. The photographer is distant from the street, giving an even more heightened sense of risk or taboo in the scene below.
The juxtaposition of the sombre with the everyday (both in terms of the setting, the intimate framing of the photo, and its context on social media) makes looking at it all the more difficult.
Images of tragedy and horror often circulate well on the media – like this one, going viral, reaching around the world. Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman wrote about the circulation of images in the media in 1996, before the advent of social media, and yet they discussed many trends we could see continuing, and even increasing, today. They note, for example “viewers become overwhelmed” from a distance and come to have “moral fatigue, exhaustion of empathy, and political despair.” ix
Given the continuous flow of numbers and statistics, of images and video, through the news, this could well have been the case. Yet people seemed to want to look. Kleinman & Kleinman also discuss that despite their potential to overwhelm, images of suffering are often appealing because they leave the viewer asking questions ix.
The unending line of crematory trucks going beyond the photo’s borders shows the impact of the viruses devastation. But what questions does it ask? Are they questions that are answerable? Either way, they were questions that New Zealand did have to approach, as citizens, and as a nation, not long after Italy.
The human struggle
“Struggling to cope” vii the photo caption says. This is, on one level, a comment about institutional and systemic capacity to practically process so many dead – since these trucks were deployed for the purpose of relieving an already overloaded crematory system vii. But the phrase can also read as a marker of psychological overwhelm for those living through the experience.
The pain that the virus has caused is immense. Images of the COVID 19 pandemic re-humanise numerical information, by bringing Twitter users closer to the suffering of those who are grieving losses of loved ones. This can be contrasted to the insistent numerical broadcasting, which removes the emotional quality and the human context of information, and by itself, refuses to acknowledge the human lives behind them. As the quote often attributed to Stalin goes: “if only one man dies … that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” x
Meanwhile, images have a variety of different ways of highlighting the specific, situated, and human meanings of these numbers. For example, the image below is of a blessing taking place by the service providers, to finalise the deceased person’s life, with dignity.
This image, taken by Italian news photographer Piero Cruciatti, offers something different to the sense of scale of death and loss in Salvanechi’s image, in terms of communicating the impact of COVID-19. It reveals one part of the story behind each number, behind each body that the viewer understands to be concealed in those many military trucks. It shows the layers of human care and meaning invested into each of them; how the people closest to the suffering still muster the strength and urgency to undertake the enormous amount of cultural and physical work required to bring each person’s precious life to a close.
It shows, perhaps, the tragedy of the ‘one man’ rather than the thousands, and in doing so, it arguably brings a different kind of understanding of this event, than it does to contemplate the thousands.
Image and response
Paul Frosh, an academic writing about digital media, and specifically how people view and respond to the suffering of distant othersxi. One’s moral “response-ability”, he argues, is linked to the sensory mediums through which one is viewing and responding. People who viewing Salvanechi’s photo on Twitter, for example, had to choose how to respond, with their eyes, hands, and attention. Practically this could mean many things; clicking, commenting, sharing. More broadly, categories such as ‘witnessing’ explain what type of moral response these micro-actions may represent.
Images can broach both a geographical and emotional distance, and act as a testimony and a memorial in and of themselves, to human experience, and human suffering. In Salvanechi’s photo, and the photo by Piero Cruciatti, we are forced to consider the suffering that quickly can become incomprehensible and overwhelming vii– given a chance to hold our gaze, and to be witnesses to this horrible reality. And in doing so, to form a kind of momentary connection with other people’s life world’s that is void in the production of infographics and statistical data in journalism.
In addition, there are practical responses that can flow on from this deeper kind of acknowledgement. Read in full, the caption on Salvanechi’s candid night-time photograph has a clear intended purpose; asking for more serious adherence to policies of social isolation, as a tactic to slow the spread of COVID-19. Kleinman and Kleinman’s article acknowledges that images can become a social and symbolic commodity for igniting action and change ix.
When New Zealand’s time came, we also had to make choices about setting policy, and also following policy. About lockdowns and closures and social distancing, and other dramatic social changes. Who can say whether the things we had already witnessed overseas, through the lens and eyes of journalists and everyday citizens on social media, was part of shaping our response?
Whether directly affected or not, in this strange period of human history we have all become ‘online witnesses’ the the COVID19 pandemic. Many of us have absorbed large amounts of numerical and statistical information every day iii, vi. While this information provides easily absorbable overviews of the virus’ impact, it cannot contain or express the more human aspects of this moment in time. However, sprinkled throughout the media coverage, have been images that have also mapped the scope and scale of the pandemic, but in an entirely different way.
Images can hurt us, can wound us. They can also, at the same time, offer an embodied empathetic experience of the suffering of others.. Sometimes they can contribute to changes not only in how we understand the world, but the choices we make in response to it. The images of crematory trucks in Northern Italy expressed the large scale devastation of the virus, at a moment in which the whole world was watching, and deciding how to react. What we owe to these cannot be measured.
i National Post, 2020. COVID-19 Italy: Military fleet carries coffins of coronavirus victims out of overwhelmed town. [Online]
Available at: https://nationalpost.com/news/world/covid-19-italy-videos-show-military-fleet-transporting-coffins-of-coronavirus-victims-out-of-overwhelmed-town
[Accessed 09 April 2020].
ii Worldometer, 2020. Italy Population (LIVE). [Online]
Available at: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/italy-population/
[Accessed 20 April 2020].
iii NZHerald, 2020. Covid 19 coronavirus: How virus overwhelmed Italy with almost 5000 deaths in a month. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=12318768
[Accessed 20 April 2020].
iv Turismo Bergamo, 2020. Visit Bergamo: An Italian masterpiece. [Online]
Available at: https://www.visitbergamo.net/en/news/item/278/
[Accessed 21 April 2020].
v Knox, C., 2020. NZHerald. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12322890
[Accessed 04 May 2020].
vi Worldometers.info, 2020. WORLD / COUNTRIES / ITALY. [Online]
Available at: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/italy/
[Accessed 20 April 2020].
vii Salvaneschi, G., 2020. Twitter.com. [Online]
Available at: https://twitter.com/guidosalva/status/1240555847849312256
[Accessed 09 April 2020].
viii Clark, H., 2020. Missing In Action: the lack of a globally co-ordinated response to Covid-19. [Online]
Available at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/120969978/missing-in-action-the-lack-of-a-globally-coordinated-response-to-covid19
[Accessed 04 May 2020].
ix Kleinman, A. a. K. J., 1996. The Appeal of experience; the dismay of images: cultural appropriations of suffering in our times. Daedalus, 125(1), pp. 1-23.
x Stalin, J., 1947. A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic. [Online]
Available at: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/21/death-statistic/
[Accessed 21 April 2020].
xi Frosh, P., 2016. The mouse,the screen and the Holocaust witness: Interface aesthetics and moral response. New Media and Society, 20(1), pp. 351-368.