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How shall we grieve 'our' dead?

Updated Friday, 30th June 2006

Gillian Rose suggests a new approach to those who die in public

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Departure board at Kings Cross reminding people of two minutes silence for the dead of July 7th 2005

The violence and death that has accompanied globalisation from its earliest days has recently begun to take new forms and to occupy new places. Three metropolitan cities have been bombed: New York, Madrid and London.

I guess many of you reading this will remember the photographs that accompanied the reporting of the London bombs in the British press: photos of the bombed bus, of devastated train carriages, of survivors and of emergency service workers. And there were also those photographs of the missing and the dead, of course. All the newspapers printed copies of those. Snapped on holiday, at graduations, at parties, in photo booths, they continue to exert a presence even after I know that all of those pictured died brutal deaths in a train carriage or a bus last July. Their photos still haunt me.

In this violent world, photos of dead and missing people are commonplace. They are used as memorials, as demands for justice, and as a means to search for those whose fate is unknown. But my question here is – how should we look at those faces?

How should those faces be regarded, in an interdependent world where the lines between sameness and difference, the familiar and the strange, the home-grown and the foreign, remain heavily surveilled and policed, and where violence and grief are so often allocated accordingly?

The British newspapers last summer seemed to have a fairly straightforward answer to that question. In the way they wrote about the bombs and the dead, and in the way they showed us those pictures, they presented the dead in quite particular ways. All those people were presented as Londoners, in particular, ordinary normal Londoners killed doing that most ordinary and normal of things, commuting to work.

They were also characterised in other ways. There was relatively little reporting of their funerals, for example, so that their deaths were fixed in London between 8.51 and 9.47 on the morning of 7 July 2005. I think we need to ponder a little on just what that fixing of lives achieved.

What it achieved, I think, was to erase much of the specificity of the dead. It erased differences between them. But also, the papers seemed to work to minimise differences between their readers and those the bombers killed. The Sun, for example, twice printed double-page spreads of photos of the dead and missing in a way that mimicked a family photo album: the photos were reproduced, framed in white, a bit skew, on black pages. Not only were these photos reproduced in a familiar format, they were also photos just like you and I take, and the people in them look just like you and I do when we are photographed: happy, sometimes, a bit self-conscious, red-eyed, smiling dutifully, overexposed. The bombers’ victims, we seemed to see, were just like us.

But is this effort to erase differences among those who died, and between us and them, really an appropriate response to the attacks? Because what it does, surely, is to erase any possible sense of interrelation between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the terrorists, beasts and fanatics, as they were called, the four men who bombed and who, it was made clear, far from being Londoners, had extensive connections elsewhere in the world. It also downplayed the differences among ‘us’.

So I think we need to learn to look differently at those photos, in ways that open up the field of difference and interdependence in much more nuanced ways.

But how? The newspapers used the photos as self-evident images of those who had died. But there were suggestions in the newspapers, too, that photographs have other uses than those to which the papers put them. There are hints that photos are objects that things that people make, and do things with. There are photos as posters, t-shirts, and as objects held in hope when the fate of the person pictured was unknown, and clutched in desperate grief.

So what happens if we think about photos less as images and more as objects? Take one of the holiday snaps, for example. Thinking about it as a sort of artefact encourages questions like, who took that photograph? Where? Why? Where was it printed, how was it displayed, who has looked at it in very different circumstances, and why?

These sorts of questions – even if we can’t answer them – immediately restore some notion of specificity to the dead. They weren’t all the same; they must have done different things. They went to different places on holiday, spent their days differently, had different things, dreamed different dreams. Their photos got made and travelled in distinct ways, shadowing human lives that in fact extended far beyond London and work.

And thinking about that mobility that comes from pondering photographs starts to unfix what the papers did to the dead. So asking these sorts of questions about photos does begin, I think, to loosen the photos from the fixing to which the newspapers subjected them.

It suggests the diverse interdependencies in which photos are caught up; and suggests that, in this interdependent world, drawing neat boundaries between us and them is never going to work.

Gillian Rose is Professor of Geography at the Open University.

This article was used to support the OU / New Economics Foundation event - Interdependence Day - held in July 2010.


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