NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

August 31st, 2007

Body Bag in the Bronx

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

This is a hard photo of a bad day at the workplace:

30bronx2l.jpg

At about 8 in the morning a former employee of the RiverBay Corporation gunned down a supervisor, then shot two other employees before taking the bus to a courthouse where he turned himself in. (Where would we be without good mass transit?) The photograph with the story shows the body of Audley Bent being brought out of the building at 12:50 p.m.

This is about as harsh an image of death as I want to see. The full body, including the head, wrapped up in that heavy tarp and strapped down tightly–right where the mouth and neck would be–well, there is no doubt that he is cold stone dead. The dramatic effect is heightened by the gurney and the technician’s gloves, which often are seen with a living victim who is being treated by med-techs while being ferried to an ambulance. Indeed, the brisk professionalism of the one, along with the casual attentiveness of the cop in the right foreground, make it seem as if this is just another accident.

Perhaps we’d like to think there might be some hope, but that huge, hulking, inert bag, stuffed with what is unmistakably a human body, crushes hope. Worse, look at how it matches up with the dumpster behind it: bag and trash bin appear to be the same dark green color and almost the same length. It’s as though the dumpsters are a row of coffins and the latest load from the apartment building is being taken to the next open bin. And what a cemetery: metal and concrete, everything rectilinear, featureless, and hard. The two living men could be prison guards. This industrialized back alley is no place to die, or to live.

The Bronx is better than that, of course, and you don’t take a dead body out the front door if you can avoid it. But the photograph does raise the perennial question about what images should or should not be published. Here one has little cause to complain about not being shown the dead.

The photo also raises a question about how violence is framed. Had Audley Bent been gunned down in Iraq, he would have been “processed” in much the same way, but no image of the body bag would be in the newspaper. During wartime, the soldier’s death is rightly treated with respect, although that respect can include visual practices that also hide the nature of industrialized warfare while sacralizing war itself. Likewise, the fact that we are shown the body bag of a murder victim suggests that .38-caliber violence is somewhat taken for granted on the home front–as if it were another not-so-hidden cost of modern civilization like pollution or traffic congestion.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that. I hope so.

Photograph by Uli Seit for The New York Times.


Digg!

2 Responses to ' Body Bag in the Bronx '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' Body Bag in the Bronx '.

  1. Grant said,

    on August 31st, 2007 at 10:10 am

    While this photograph looks striking in the New York Times, these kinds of images have become common in entertainment: novels, movies, police procedural dramas. Obviously, the picture confronts viewers with a “harsh” reality, instead of fiction. But as you point out, the photograph has a variety of visual “dramatic effect[s]” – like the similar colors of the body bag and the dumpsters, the coffin-like row of trash receptacles, etc. The photograph almost appears deliberately constructed, with everything “rectilinear, featureless, and hard.” One could imagine this scene in an episode of CSI.

    Perhaps entertainment normalizes what we see in this photograph – and this photograph normalizes what we see in entertainment. I know that’s not a particularly groundbreaking point, but I feel like its relevant in reading this photograph. These crimes confront the public every morning in the paper and every night on prime time with less distinction between them. The blurring between these two sources of input could contribute to the sense that the public takes violence like this for granted. I say “contribute to the sense” because I hope you’re wrong too.

  2. Etnier said,

    on August 31st, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    “Perhaps we’d like to think there might be some hope, but that huge, hulking, inert bag, stuffed with what is unmistakably a human body, crushes hope. Worse, look at how it matches up with the dumpster behind it: bag and trash bin appear to be the same dark green color and almost the same length. It’s as though the dumpsters are a row of coffins and the latest load from the apartment building is being taken to the next open bin. And what a cemetery: metal and concrete, everything rectilinear, featureless, and hard. The two living men could be prison guards. This industrialized back alley is no place to die, or to live.”

    This very effective and interesting blog is threatened by an apparent need to put layers of heavy significance over everything.

    It COULD be spaceport Sunto, and the bodybag COULD hold an Eroxian death noodle.

Leave a reply


FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.