What would Susan Sontag say? • Andrea Bocchiola
“The shocking images of people jumping from the Twin Towers have had a profound impact on our collective memory. Meanwhile, with equal but opposite urgency, they have become the target of a relentless strategy of repression. (M. Carbone, L’evento dell’11 September 2001, p. 131)
In its aesthetic perfection and tangible horror, the falling man depicted in the infamous photograph of September 11, 2001 is the image that best encapsulates the tragedy of that day, which became a true turning point in history. Yet he became the immediate target of a fierce crusade of censorship, so much so that on Esquire, Junod writes “In the United States, people were careful to banish him from the 9/11 archives.” “Something extreme and overriding has qualified this image in relation to our thought reference system and made it to such an extent that it looks unbearable and therefore must be suppressed. Which doesn’t just mean buried under the rug, but rather squeezed out and practically “quarantined” to prevent it from resurfacing. This made it twice invisible; first because hidden and then because obstructed in its potential occurrences to resurface (see: Mauro Carbone, L’evento dell’11 september 2001. Quando iniziò il XXI secolo, Mimesis, Milan, 2021).
The image of the drowned body of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi found washed up on the beach had a different fate but a similar outcome.
Having become the target of an insatiable media overexposure, which had the effect of rapidly desensitizing our gaze, this photograph has lost most of its powerful impact to become, in itself, almost perfectly invisible due to an excess of media coverage.
This does not mean that this image has been emptied of its capacity to shock, nor of its traumatogenic character, but that it now makes a long detour to our anesthetized gaze in order to be affected by it. It’s as if we have to go the extra mile to achieve an authentic emotional experience of this image.
Desensitization is, after all, another form of suppression. Obviously, overexposure and obliteration are just two of the options that can alter the power of a photograph by nullifying it. However, there is a more dangerous one. Indeed, one can always try to oppose desensitization and, even more, censorship, but trying to resist something that affects our contemporary aesthetic and emotional relationship to the world – the intertwining between hyperrealism and unrealism – is significantly more difficult. In other words, we are so accustomed to the fictional hyperrealism of virtual images that in relation to them the power of reality is likely to dissipate while the possibility of establishing a difference between reality and fiction is compromised. The violence that dominates contemporary blockbuster cinema – derived from the collective consciousness is a current and explicit example of this. Equally obvious is the fact that the violence depicted in action movies and video games does not correspond to reality. No living creature would ever survive – not even a few minutes – the ordeal that our modern heroes go through in action movies. Yet, despite being fictionalized violence, it is portrayed in a very hyperrealistic way with devastating consequences – it is the possibility, if not the inevitability, that documentary footage of the war in Ukraine will be approached as whether it was a movie or a video game.