Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Gaurav has written about Shivan Vij's botched up attempts to draw publicity to his blog by posting pictures of the victims of rape and murder in a village near Nagpur. The act was truly heinous, and deserves to be paid every bit of attention as the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshani Mattoo, but giving it attention is not the same as splattering photos of dead bodies on blogs and front pages. First of all, someone who has a way with words can evoke the same emotions with them, and "a picture is worth a thousand words" is not an adage that should be used indiscriminately. Secondly, it is very much possible to be graphic without being sensationalist or insulting.

When could it be appropriate to describe graphic details? Graphic details certainly catch your attention, and this tactic has been wrongly used by the media as noted to sensationalize muders, rapes, and other atrocities. However, describing atrocities and posting pictures of them is quite different. That's because our visual memory is much stronger than our verbal memory, and therefore, much more responsibility needs to be exercised when assailing our visual senses. The press often fails to understand this responsibility, and takes the easy way out of shocking us by showing graphic photos. This is an easy way out because naturally, it is much more difficult to deliver the same emotional impact through words as through pictures. But in this process, as Gaurav notes, they forget about the dignity of the victims. Somehow, the fact that they are dead reinforces this lack of attention in their mind.

Among all the books I have read in my life, there have been books that have described a singular event in history in more graphic detail that I should have read. These were the Holocaust books that I encountered at perhaps too early an age. But now, as I remember those books, I realise that they were the finest examples of graphic and yet necessary reading that I have seen. Probably the first such book was William Shirer's monumental Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer's descriptions of the treatment of Jews and 'experiments' on them in extermination camps are as morbid as anything could be. And yet, Shirer is such a masterly and authoritative writer that he brilliantly succeeds in convincing us that those paragraphs should be read by every human being on earth, in fact precisely for reinforcing the idea of human dignity. So actually, it is possible to remind everyone what human dignity is through graphic descriptions.

The other such related book which I can highly recommend, although for those with a strong stomach, is Richard Rhodes's Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust. This books talks about how the Holocaust in fact began with the German invasion of Russia, when the infamous SS began summary executions of thousands of Ukranian Jews by shooting them and then dumping bodies in pits. Parts of the book were too much for me, maybe because I had had too much of Holocaust reading at that time. But again, like Shirer, Rhodes makes graphic descriptions necessary and is a riveting storyteller without peer. The accounts are intensely vivid, but never gratuitous, something like the opening violence in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Just like Shirer, Rhodes manages to convince us that reading those descriptions are necessary for understanding the history, or at least are necessary to give us a unique vantage point. Both Rhodes and Shirer are superb historians, and it is this distinction that helps them to depict graphic events in a way that actually highlights human dignity.

The bottom line is, it is quite possible to be very graphic without pictures, and without insulting human dignity. But such writing is an art, and very few members of the press are masters in it. Most are not, and therefore they take the easy way out of posting and publishing sensationalist pictures solely intended to shock.

Update: In retrospect, I guess that my labeling of Shivam's post as a publicity stunt was a premature conclusion. Sorry about that. I basically founded my hasty assertion on the basis of the post itself, and his link to it on another blog. But I now realise that his motive was not to defame the vicitms. On the other hand, I still believe that one can inform as well as shock without being graphic, but then it also depends on the sensitivity of the reader.


Anonymous Anirudh said...

Writing graphically is an art, yes, but I don't see why Shivam putting up those pictures is wrong. I would have taken the post far more seriously had he written about it instead of simply putting up those pictures but I don't think he is doing it for publicity's sake or wishes, in any way, to demean the victims.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I agree

5:22 AM  
Anonymous Abi said...

You don't need to take his word about his article. It's up on his blog. As he explained, he couldn't post it until it was already in Tehelka.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Shivam said...


4:32 PM  

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