Friday, August 30, 2013

Morality of Mortality in Still Life

Photo by David Lassman

This morning was bright and sunny near Syracuse, New York.  The last workday before a long three-day weekend.  And as people logged on to their computers, and surfed over to Syracuse.com, a local news website, they were greeted with this photo at the top of a story about a fatality accident in the area.

A white sheet, covering what's obviously a corpse, on the pavement, near a crumpled motorcycle, and a damaged Jeep.  Skid marks, a lone shoe, and what appear to be bloodstains on the white sheet.  Crime scene tape, two police cars.  With a small group of what likely are police investigators standing about a block away.

You can almost hear and feel the stillness of the scene.

By now, however, if you visit the website, the photo has been cropped to exclude the white sheet covering the motorcyclist's body.  According to purportedly eyewitness accounts from feedback to this story, the deceased was a worker at a nearby office complex.  It is believed that he ran a red light and hit the Jeep.

The reason Syracuse.com decided to crop out the white sheet covering the victim stems from a rush of criticism from dozens of readers posting feedback to this story, objecting to being subjected to such a garish scene in the original version of the photo.

Bad taste, showing what's obviously a lifeless body, even if it is covered by a sheet.  Disrespectful to the victim's family, should they be venturing onto Syracuse.com without knowing their loved one's body is under that sheet.  Needlessly sensationalistic journalism.

Or is it?

This story quickly became one of the most heavily-debated articles on Syracuse.com, as readers went back and forth, posting complaints about the photo, or complaints about the people complaining about the photo.  Hey, at least the corpse itself wasn't visible.  Blood, death, and tragedy are part of life.  Maybe such a graphic depiction of the results of running red lights, as has been assumed was the cause, will convince other people not to take such foolish risks.

On the one hand, it's simply a photo that's generated quite a bit of buzz in an otherwise sleepy corner of New York State.  We've seen far more disturbing images out of Syria lately, and Iraq.  Does it make a difference when the bloody sheet is covering an American?  Or a local guy that somebody might actually have known?

When I lived in New York City, I particularly remember seeing on the local evening news some coverage of a Mafia hit in either Brooklyn or Queens.  A mob operative had been assassinated while sitting in his car underneath an overpass.  It was a burgundy Lincoln, and the driver's side window had shattered from the close-range gunshots.  The news camera angled right in for a close-up of the victim's blood-splattered face, a middle-aged man with greying hair.  And the whole thing was broadcast unfiltered to New York City, as a reporter droned on in the background about plausible motives.  As I recall, there was no "some of the scenes you are about to see are disturbing" disclaimer.  It was simply ordinary news footage of yet another casualty of the city's time-worn mob wars.  Film at 11.

Granted, I have no idea how much angry feedback the station received after airing that footage, but chances are, it wasn't much.  It's not like mob hits are exceedingly rare in New York City.  What might be rarer are mob hits where news camera crews arrive on-site before police detectives have started covering up the crime scene.  Even in the Syracuse.com photo, it seems a bit odd that the body was left on the street for so long.  The accident happened at 7:54 in the morning, the photos were posted at 8:49, and even past 9:00, according to the story, the body was still there, eventually covered by a yellow tarp.  How long does it take for the coroner to show up at fatality accidents in Central New York?

Maybe it's no big deal.  Maybe it is a bit opportunistic of Syracuse.com to run an attention-grabbing photo like this, knowing that if they really have to crop out its most objectionable component, they can do it and still have a photo that tells a story.  We all know that motorcycles aren't the safest mode of transportation anyway.  And people die in motor vehicle accidents every day.  Plus, it's not like Syracuse.com is in the same league as the New York Times or even FOX News.  Millions of people around the world aren't going to see this story and be horrified at the disturbing depiction of a dead person lying on the pavement with a bloodied sheet covering it.

But looking at this photo, it truly is the finality that it captures that makes it disturbing.  Maybe even horrifying.  A lone shoe, thrown from the foot of its owner by the impact of the collision.  A motorcycle, wrecked, never to be ridden again, at least not by the guy who, mere minutes before this photo was taken, was riding it to work.  A relatively new Jeep, looking like a 2013 model, by the narrow shape of its broken headlight - still so new, it doesn't yet have a permanent license plate on its front bumper, assuming it's registered in New York State.  What about it's driver?  How are they coping with the reality that this wreck involved a fatality?

This story never was headline news on CNN or Drudge Report, and by now, it isn't a headline story on Syracuse.com, either.  It's hardly distinctive enough to be nominated for a Pulitzer.  The road is back open, the vehicles are gone, and the victim's body is in a morgue or funeral parlor somewhere near Syracuse.

All we've got left, those of us who never knew anybody involved in this accident, is this photo.  And the story, however ordinary, that it's telling.  A story about finality.  Endings.  Sudden impacts.  And, frankly, how ordinary they are.

That's why people who found it upsetting were, well, upset.  We don't like being reminded about how common mortality is.

One of those cops in the background of this photo appears to be leaning back casually against a squad car, in a pose suggesting far more ease with this type of situation than many of us have when looking at the photo.  And for the most part, that's to be expected.  Cops deal with this sort of thing all the time.  They need to maintain a certain level of detachment for their own sanity.

For the rest of us, however, I think it does us good to be challenged by photos like these every now and then.  They remind us of our humanity.

Even if it is far more fragile than we're comfortable admitting.



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