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.