The Pornography of the Real

The names of many of Monday’s shooting victims were released on Tuesday; more have trickled out today. What little that was still abstract to me about Monday’s events is gone. Last night, as I was drafting this post I was able to write “Ashley and I have known none of the victims directly, but I know several people who have lost immediate family, friends, classmates, and colleagues.” Now, sadly, the first half of that sentence is no longer true.

Out of respect for the privacy and dignity for those who are confronting unfathomable losses right now, I’m going to refrain from sharing any further details. Why? Because since Monday I’ve witnessed reporters sticking their microphones into the faces of people with very red eyes, hovering near the homes of those who have lost loved ones, and taking photos with extreme telephoto lenses, lenses that don’t require the photographer to have a personal relationship with his subject. Frankly, I’m sick of it.

The past 48 hours have been one long, ongoing demonstration of what Jill Godmilow, in both her incomparable film What Farocki Taught and her essay “What’s Wrong with the Liberal Documentary?, labels “the pornography of the real”:

The “pornography of the real” involves the highly suspect, psychic pleasure of viewing “the moving picture real” … a powerful pornographic interest in real people, real death, real destruction and real suffering, especially of “others”, commodities in film. These “pleasures” are not brought to our attention. The pornographic aspect is masked in the documentary by assurances that the film delivers only the actually existing real — thus sincere truths that we need to know about.

As I said in my previous post, I think of storytelling as a kind of citizenship, so I don’t blame people for wanting to know the stories unfolding in Blacksburg, nor do I blame journalists for telling those stories. Still, how one gathers the facts, why you gather them, and the way you tell them can’t be separated from the story you’re telling. Sadly I’ve been witnessing firsthand how many journalists, particularly those from out of town, seem to have forgotten that common decency is also facet of citizenship. My main consolation, and it isn’t much, is knowing that the members of the media will move on to another spectacle in very short time.

7 Responses to “The Pornography of the Real”

  1. J.D. Says:

    great post, I couldn’t agree more. There is a legitimate news story here that should be covered but we don’t need to see a weeping mother with a microphone shoved in her face, we all know she is devastated, that is not news, that is predation.

  2. tom Says:

    paul, i’m sorry for your loss. The Temple FMA community has had you both in our thoughts this week. I wish we could do more, but are all here if you need us.

  3. Daniel Kremer Says:

    I was just talking with my library supervisor tonight about the release of the gunman’s videotapes and the media’s handling of them. He brought up a fine point. We know all so very well that the person who committed these acts was beyond disturbed. What is happening now though, in his wake, is exploitation. Exactly to what end are the tapes being released? It is as if the media releases these videos as a means of getting us to say, “Wow, look how twisted this person was and look at the result of his twistedness” without a proper perspective on how it reflects upon the event itself. The event, in the media’s hands, could be totally disconnected from the gunman’s tapes. They do not release these tapes to simply reveal the extent of his madness, but also to exploit a delicate and upsetting situation further. What are we dealing with? This is after the fact, right? The same for what you are experiencing currently, Paul, in regards to the media’s interviewing of people who are upset beyond words, and sticking a camera with a telephoto lens to capture warts and all in their faces to build on the Spectacle with a capital S. Milking real tragedy for exploitational purposes is certainly nothing new…nothing new at all…but is exemplified every single day. But it takes a major event like this for us to truly realize a world out of control with its projection of the real. The media is predatory more than ever.

    On another note, my thoughts are with you and with your students and colleagues at Virginia Tech. I know all to well that would permanently affect me. My deepest sympathies. I wasn’t even there and it still does deeply affect me.

    I am intrigued by another person’s question on the last post: Considering storytelling as a service profession, where does this take you in your own storytelling? It think it’s a valid question. On a different note, I have been writing a script called “The Sadness of Seeing Too Much”. How this title is appropriate, yes?

  4. The Phantom City » The Pornography of the Real Says:

    […] Virginia Tech teacher and filmmaker Paul Harrill on the media spectacle surrounding the shootings, before NBC decided to air the videos. […]

  5. j.a.morales Says:

    I came upon this post of your blog through a link on Boing Boing. I’m from Puerto Rico (one of the victims was from here) and was clearly curious to find out what happened and why it happened. Your thoughts pretty much sum up the feelings of many who in their desire to inform themselves of the events had to wade through so much hysterical and unnecessary media exploitation which tended to cheapen the tragedy somewhat. The immediacy of media coverage lends itself to this mindless pursuit of the new and the real. Maybe when the dust settles there will emerge the thoughtful analysis that this event requires. It disturbs me the the NYT refused to accept your comment and yet was not hesitant to bracket the film analogy as a sort of freak sideshow item.
    I salute your honesty and decorum. May its echo reverberate.

  6. ann & gary Says:

    With deepest sympathy for the sadness that you and Ashley are experiencing now. Please know you are in our thoughts and prayers. We wish we could wrap our arms around you and give you a personal hug.
    May the Lord comfort all of Virginia Tech’s students, faculty, and their families.

  7. Marta Says:

    Greetings, Paul! Glad to hear you’re alright, and thanks for sharing the article. I think I will use it for a paper I am presenting at UFVA in August. Hope the healing process gets better for everyone at Virginia Tech from here on in.