9/11 and an artistic ethics

Have just been watching C4′s brave 102 Minutes That Changed America – most of it anyway, it was very tough viewing.

The cameraman was camera operators seemed to be at times very intrusive, and actually seemed to infuriate people, but he they did what was best in documenting some very sombre and terrifying moments. People, covered in dust and debris, would wave their hands as if to say I’ve been in there, fuck off with your camera, and against their sensitivities managed to catch both their anger and their vulnerabilities. The viewer asks themselves the important question, definitely on the lips of those commissioning the programme; is watching this programme not tantamount to voyeurism, or, should I be watching these terrified people in their terror climaxes?

The answer should be no, but what is posterity worth? When Kevin Carter, the nobel prize winning photographer, was asked about filming South African necklacing – the act of filling a rubber tyre with petrol, placing it round a victims neck and setting on fire – he replied;

“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

It was in 1993 that Carter took the photograph of a small girl in famine ridden Sudan, that took him to the long road of depression. What should a photographer do, should s/he attempt to help the subject, does art trump life, what moral proximity does the artist have towards his or her subject if any, and should this jeopardise his or her art or commitment.

It was these questions, and many more that Carter suffered before he took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window, eventually dying at the age of 33.

Robert Capa, the Spanish civil war photographer famous for his photograph Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, was held in very high esteem for his very graphic and personal display of the other war against fascism. This year a Spanish professor, José Manuel Susperregui, published a book titled Shadows of Photography, which demonstrated that Capa’s photograph could not have been taken where it was alleged to have been, using separate photographic evidence.

Tough as it may be, sometimes, in order to save your corner, you have to come clean on your allies. In order to keep the Spanish Republican message alive, and by saving the right from using it to their advantage, the truth of Capa had to be released. Similarly, two Canadian documentary filmmakers were once making a film on Michael Moore, the leftwing polemicist, from a supportive bent. However, after weeks of specialising in the remit of Moore, soon realised that much of his work was born out fiction, covering his fiction behind the gonzo-esque, perverting the realm of the anti-war movement in America – which obviously needed all the support it could gather. The point of the filmmakers’ – Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine – efforts could not have been better summed up by the title of their film; Manufacturing Dissent.

The above references – if they have any common theme – is to try and communicate a truth, even if using methods that don’t exactly weigh up as such. Kevin Carter’s profile as one who captures a truth haunted him until his dying day, Capa was willing to stage events in order to send a message across the world detailing the horrors of the evil Francoist regime – even if this event was fictitious. Sometimes the only way an artist can record the nearest representation to truth, is by recreating it, sometimes truth is not real enough. Perhaps Michael Moore could argue this case also, but two leftist documentarists were willing to spill the beans to save their corner.

These are the criteria for infiltrating the truth as it’s happening, for limiting ones own remit to that of the artist – the bearer of the potentially worldwide message – and not the saviour, or at least not in any immediate sense. Does Channel 4′s 9/11 documentary do just that? I’d risk saying not in this instance, the location shots seemed brave, and there was no fear of tweaking the truth of the events, only it seemed to mostly interfere. For what it’s worth, it did capture emotion fraught with fear, but did this hold the same weight as say Kevin Carter, or was it perversion, a glimpse at vulnerability for a public energised by action. I’d risk an accusation of the latter.

See also the discussion of this review over at The Third Estate here

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