There’s a double standard for showing white and non-white corpses in the media

“Have you ever seen a white corpse in the news?” Ayesha Siddiqi, editor in chief of The New Inquiry asked a few days ago on Twitter. “Seriously asking,” she followed up, “have you ever seen news media circulate images of a white person’s corpse?” Specifically, on the day Siddiqi asked, we did not. We did not see the bodies of two white journalists horrifically gunned down in Virginia by a deranged ex-colleague on camera. Social media sites and major news outlets were swift to ban videos and images of their deaths.

I’ve thought for some days on her question. I’ve asked friends and colleagues. And while my rudimentary survey is by no means conclusive, it struck me that, no, I have not seen a white corpse in the news in recent memory. Not, perhaps since 20 years ago, when an image of a fire fighter carrying a dying little white girl from the rubble of the Okhlahoma City Bombing became iconic.

Images of white people close to death have alone caused controversy — consider the tragic, spectacular Falling Man, captured in frame leaping from the North Tower on 9/11. There was also much censure directed at the New York Daily News for publishing a front page picture of Alison Parker, the anchor murdered on air, as she looked into a firing gun. The New York Post was condemned for showing James Foley with the Islamic State executioner’s knife pressing to his throat.

There are good, ethical reasons that media producers, media sharers and media consumers urge these images be excised from our visual landscapes. But we often are exposed to images of black and brown corpses, and for equally but differently ethical reasons. Forcing people to look at deadly, racist police violence — such as the videos showing police gun down Tamir Rice, or Walter Scott, or choke Eric Garner to death — has underpinned and buoyed the power of Black Lives Matter. Equally, images of dead Gazan children helped importantly disrupt Israeli narratives about its 2014 assault on Gaza avoiding civilian casualty. Photographed rows of Syrian children killed by Assad regime airstrikes made visceral the cost of the Syrian civil war. What does it mean, then, that to report on horrors perpetrated against certain bodies we show death, and against other bodies, we hide it?

The question seems particularly worth addressing this week as social media platforms and news outlets seem split on the ethics of publishing images of refugee children from Syria and Iraq drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the bodies of 71 smuggled refugees found dead in a truck abandoned on an Austrian motorway. On Wednesday, multiple news outlets published a most terrible image of a drowned Syrian toddler, one of 12 refugees who died including his five-year-old brother, attempting to reach the Greece. His body washed up on the beach of the Turkish coastal town, Bodrum. These images, originally captured by a Turkish News Agency DHA photographer, now feature on the front page of a number of major British newspapers—from tabloid to broadsheet—on Thursday.

Some argue that the censoring of such pictures would cover up the horror of the crisis. Tabloids use the same humanitarian argument as a pretext to make money off gruesome spectacles. The counter-argument asserts that the images are no more than death porn, devoid of political or ethical force. None of these arguments can stand alone without a reckoning with the way visual culture already treats the representation of dead victims of different societal and racial identities.

One of the most prevalent arguments against publishing Islamic State execution videos, or the Virginia on-air shooting, is that the killers in these cases want the visuals to spread as propaganda, and we should thus resist aiding this effort. But we would see many more white corpses in the news media if censorship was limited to subverting terror propaganda efforts. And we don’t. Similarly, Western media platforms don’t only ban images of white corpses—we don’t see footage of the Islamic State executing, say 600 Yazidis in Northern Iraq. Non-white corpses are often considered unpublishable, too, largely on the ostensible grounds of overly graphic content. But it remains true that we often see the non-white dead, and almost never white dead bodies.

It is only by virtue of looking at the deaths, the corpses, and the becoming-corpses of black lives like Scott Walker, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, that the media even thought to ask about their lived lives at all.

There’s a comfortable symmetry to the idea that there is value in hiding the corpses murderers want to parade, and displaying the corpses the murderers are keen to have hidden. We hide what the Islamic State wants to publicize, but we make public what, say, U.S. police departments would rather brush under the carpet. And more often than not, black and brown bodies are the victims of atrocity that our prevailing power structures would rather keep hidden. Since black male teens are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers in the U.S., it stands to reason that there are simply more black corpses to show in the struggle against police violence; that’s why it’s an anti-racist fight. But the fact that there are significantly more non-white victims than white still does not account for the absence, and the specific efforts to remove, white corpses from the news media.

It comes down, I believe, to a question of humanization. It has been explicitly cited as a reason for removing footage of executions and dead bodies that such media dehumanizes. The memories of lived lives are reduced to corpses; and corpses in turn reduced to spectacles—the going commodity of late capitalism, as Guy Debord famously argued. Little wonder that it is often family members of the deceased who urge against the sharing of execution videos. “That’s not how life should be,” wrote on of Foley’s relatives, asking that the public not watch the journalist’s beheading. And, certainly, that’s not how life should be. But this tells us something about our current state of white supremacy, too. That it is only by virtue of looking at the deaths, the corpses, and the becoming-corpses of black lives like Scott Walker, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, that the media even thought to ask about their lived lives at all.

The suggestion is not that white corpses dehumanize their preceding lives when displayed, while the same is not true of black and brown bodies. I think the same assumptions about primarily focusing on dead bodies applies across the board. It’s a longstanding and valid criticism of media commodification of the grotesque and tragic. It’s not limited to white bodies. Public outrage followed (white) poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s edited recital of Mike Brown’s autopsy report, and an art exhibit depicting Brown’s corpse with a mannequin under a sheet in a Chicago gallery. Anger arose precisely because Brown’s body was treated as a pure commodity alienated from Brown-the-person. The only thing perhaps more offensive than those artistic offerings is the truth they speak to — Brown’s body was already media spectacle, and already dehumanized (always-already dehumanized by white supremacy).

The difference between the artists’ use of this horrible truth, compared to the Black Lives Matter response, was that the art doubled down on the spectacle-as-commodity, while the activism engaged in what NYU professor of media culture and communication Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “persistent looking.” By this, Mirzoeff highlights and celebrates the political act of making visible murders like that of Brown and Garner specifically in order to push the public gaze beyond the spectacle, into addressing both structural violence and the humanity of the individual whose life has been extinguished.

It’s of note that Mirzoeff has written about the political value of publishing images of deceased refugees seeking safety in Europe. Specifically, he wrote about the photographs of drowned children posted to Facebook by Syrian photographer Khaled Barakeh. The images were banned, then restored, by Facebook’s secretive and offshore-operated obscenity filters. Notably, it took mainstream media publishing photographs of the same atrocity to have merit deemed beyond atrocity. Mirzoeff’s point about the relevance of such images stands regardless. “We have to keep looking, to remember the people that died. And to begin to imagine what we can do politically with the mass of digital images,” he wrote.

I agree: we are in a grim state of affairs if it takes horrifying spectacle to prompt political intervention. It’s not clear that removing morbid imagery is more ethical than displaying it—both are bereft ethical acts if we don’t look persistently, with a view to act against the structures that produce the horror these images depict. Images of corpses may be dehumanizing, but nothing so dehumanizing as a global power structure that lets thousands die at sea as they seek little more than survival.

We are in a grim state of affairs if it takes horrifying spectacle to prompt political intervention.

I’m aware that race is complicated when talking about the victims of the refugee crisis, insofar as a number of refugees are very light-skinned, and could read as “white.” For the purposes of this piece, and by my lights more generally, to talk of “whiteness” is to talk of white privilege. We may be looking at pale corpses, but these are not the bodies of humans accorded white privilege; a body can be very light-skinned and far from white. Race after all is a social construct, not a series of skin color swatches.

In the case of Black Lives Matter’s deployment of “persistent looking,” it is striking that it has taken the visualization of black death to shine the focus of mainstream media and politics on the value of black life. Any reactionary demand that we assert “white lives matter” ignores the fact that it took no less then the presentation of the black dead, at the hands of U.S. law enforcement, to gain popular recognition of the statement that “black lives matter.” It is as terrible as it is true: the aperture for non-white life, particularly poor black lives, to be humanized in the media is that it has been ended. In another important comment from Siddiqi on this issue, she asked, “when does documentation and archive continue dehumanization? when does bearing witness become spectacle?” She specifically highlighted how images of lynchings used to be sold as postcards.

Documentation and archive, especially of corpses, always risks continued dehumanization. The desire that white lives be removed from such corporeal archiving highlights this point. I would argue that in our current media culture, bearing witness always becomes spectacle. Whether this spectacle is simply click fodder, or taken up as grounds for political resistance is up to us. There is a deplorable history of oppressive power structures using the spectacle of killing to affirm their sovereign control, including the Islamic State’s taped executions, public lynching in the South, and all medieval public torture.

But there is also a rich history of resistance forces using this same visual horror as fuel for revolt. One of the reasons that public torture fell out of favor with “modern” Western states was that the sight of convicts’ bodies would at times elicit enough public sympathy such that it would cause riots. Black Lives Matter has demanded that the public must look at footage of police summarily turning black lives into corpses, and the persistent looking has indeed bolstered crucial unrest.

Sympathy is important, and often finds its most avid participants around untimely death. If there were no political potency in pathos, then Joseph Goebbels would not have written against the Jews in 1941 for “send[ing] out their pitiable.” It was a comment that Glenn Greenwald saw eerily echoed in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year when he said that Hamas was trying to garner international support by showing Gaza’s “telegenic dead” Palestinians—namely, some of the 448 children killed in nine months of Israeli attacks on occupied territory in 2014, according to the UN. As I wrote at the time, Netanyahu’s comment was an inadvertent admission that Israeli fire was producing the sort of dead bodies that make news—children, above all.

If we look at the dark histories of what could be called the “telegenic dead”, or “pitiable” dead, we are looking at a visual history of oppression. These are annals of dehumanization. We might recall the famous photographs taken by U.S. military personnel of the emaciated, exterminated Jewish bodies piled on top of each other in the camps at Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen and more.

Necessarily, this sort of visual representation tells a story of dehumanization in its most extreme form. When it is plausibly ethical to display the dead, it is because those lives have been reduced to a quite terrible and impossible position. They are subjects given voice only once they are reduced to corpses. Little wonder white bodies in recent decades tend to be exempt from inclusion in these visual narratives.

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