“Salth of the Earth”, Salgado, Bare Life, and Spectacle: A few thoughts

Went to see “The Salt of the Earth” last night, and I’m haunted today by Salgado’s devastating images of labor, of suffering, of “bare life” in Rwanda and Congo and the former Yugoslavia. Don’t miss this film. Though flawed (wish it had explored the ethics of such witnessing of horror) it is incredibly powerful–made more so by a large screen.

In thinking about how I might use (parts of) this film, of course Sontag’s “On Photograpy” came to mind. A quick search turned up her late New Yorker article, which I don’t think I’d read before.

And, as so often the case, Sontag makes articulate an important thread in my response to the film:

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment—a mature style of viewing that is a prime acquisition of the “modern,” and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party-based politics that offer real disagreement and debate. It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify “the world” with those zones in the rich countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.” from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war

In June, 1938, Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war. Written during the preceding two years, while she and most of her intimates and fellow-writers were rapt by the advancing Fascist insurrection in Spain, the book was couched as a tardy reply…
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