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Disaster Dialogues: Representations of catastrophe in word and image


31 [3]



My motivation for the topic of this issue was instigated by the succession of natural disasters witnessed in early 2011, and my personal perplexity in coming to terms with (that is, naming, signifying) the visual display of the suffering of others. It began with the January floods in South East Queensland, followed by the February earthquake in Christchurch, and concluded with the 11 March Japanese tsunami resultant from the 8.9 magnitude quake which struck off the east coast of Sendai, and which continues to be newsworthy based on the consequential Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. As spectator to trauma—exacerbated by the television media’s choice to continuously loop the scenes of devastation—bearing witness to these events engendered a peculiar form of private trauma in itself. Even the phrase ‘to bear witness’ implies transference in the act of witnessing, that not only is the visual ‘held’ by the eye for the duration of the image, the subject of that witnessing is in some way ‘carried’ by the witness. There is an associative load. But the spectator’s position is, of course, a privileged one. I am not the subject in agony captured on camera. I am not the body in the water. I am not this calamity. However, in my memory recall of these events I have imposed (transposed?) myself into the foreground of the viewing frame, witnessing myself in the third person, as the subject sitting forward on the lounge or pacing as he witnesses the broadcast images. He hears no words. There is no sound. He is thinking only of punctuation: an ellipsis; a question mark. The questions do eventually arise. What narratives do we construct in response to catastrophe? What are the relative ethical considerations and the political outcomes? How do we navigate the tensions between public instances of catastrophe and personal expressions of the trauma associated? How are words and images used to express/contain disaster of such scale?


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