Digital Darkness and the Lack of Enlightenment

Last week I had two very interesting, almost contrary encounters with digital photography. Although, in the era of pocket brains and digital cameras, our encounters are rarely limited to three per week: Most of us are handling digital images in one way or the other multiple times a day. But these experiences were a little deeper than uploading foodie pics to a Facebook page.

I had never heard of the Duggar family before but was struck by an iconographically powerful image posted on Twitter (originally stemming from the gossip TV magazine’s website TMZ), carrying the title “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world”. I learned that this family had starred in an American reality TV show called 19 Kids & Counting and had been expecting child number 20 who passed away that week in a miscarriage.















In commemoration of the deceased foetus, a postcard was created and distributed – whether actually by the family or a PR team I do not know. The black and white photograph shows a close-up of a male adult’s hand, suggesting the father, holding the tiny, naked feet of the dead foetus’ corpse between index finger and thumb. The toes are slightly darkened, whereas the soles of the feet appear flat and unmarked in contrast to the visible fingerprints of the adult’s hand. The slogan “There is no foot…” was added in at least seven different black fonts in the upper third of the card, handed out at the memorial, which was attended, according to the press, by several hundred people.

Somehow, because of the choice of fonts, the card has a strange bumper sticker aura to it. The memorial’s slogan reminds me of a fridge magnet or even a birthday party invitation. The only thing missing is a lonesome, upwards drifting balloon and a sad, alcoholic clown. But who says grief-fonts are restricted to being grave, solemn and conservative? Why not curly and playful with a very personal touch, I suppose. Perhaps I was missing something since I had never watched the reality show – or was I over thinking and it was simply a decision based on bad taste? But there were so many other uncanny associations I was suddenly having with this image:

Grief is traditionally in Western culture a more private experience. So it seems odd to me as a European when carried out so publicly by distributing a “document of proof”, moreover evidence of the event, the miscarriage, the presence of tiny feet outside of the womb, which even goes on to be duplicated through the mass media. Besides, isn’t usually public mourning (which it is when “several hundred” attend) reserved for those who were actually present in society? As sad as it is, why are hundreds of people mourning a person they didn’t even know? Who are they grieving? Even from a medical perspective: The umbilical chord connected the foetus to its mother, and genetically to both mother and father but not (yet) to the outside world, to society.

Was the powerful image creating a reality, a person who hadn’t even existed yet?

The image per se and the reason for it having such a visual impact is because it addresses and draws upon a huge data base of cultural pictorial memory, ranging from anti-abortion propaganda to holocaust and war documentaries. There are even historical paintings that come to mind, like various scenes of The Entombment of Christ. A second photo collage which appeared a few days later, titled “Michelle holds Jubilee’s hand” makes these comparisons even more apparent.

The image is not an illustration of grief but serves as evidence for what allegedly happened – like in a documentary. We are not merely spectators on the outside of a private event but have now become “internal” witnesses based on the image’s claim of authenticity.

Firstly, the use of black and white photography as a medium always implies the status of the objective “reporter’s” eye, especially in contrast to the coloured portrait of the parents on the second picture, also implying a then and now. Secondly, the image is underlaid with other meaningful images, so deeply anchored in our pictorial memories, that it almost doesn’t permit the question of authenticity. Moreover, would we even dare morally to ask whether or not it was photo shopped or even faked? After all, “Jubilee” is probably the youngest celebrity ever.

The miscarriage of a foetus has become a child’s death, and someone we were supposed to have already known and a medical tragedy has been broadcasted into a situation we are sure about having full insight into. The viewer is led to believe that he or she is a true witness of a seemingly unaltered and non-manipulated situation; moreover, connected to people he or she is not really connected to. But isn’t that exactly the principle of reality TV shows?

(c) Frances Livings 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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