fter World War II, the underground market’s fiercest pornography wasn’t sexual. It was primitive photo albums with images of extermination camp detainees.
Some had been experimented on. Others were distorted by malnutrition. Still others were injected with diseases that induced spectacular deformations. Cadavers assumed alien shapes.
These picture books circulated for years in Western Europe and the United States despite efforts to ban them. At the time, fairly rigid standards governed graphic photos. Selling suffering was considered depraved.
While some argued that putting atrocities in full view admonished against their repetition, ethicists wanted no part of voyeurism — perceived as more insidious and (once established) enduring.
As the breadth of 21st century video coverage grows, the Nazi picture book debate has returned in a different form, begging questions.
If it’s fair game to “illustrate” the consequences of natural and manmade calamity, how and when does liberal society formulate and apply standards?
Does “apocalypse” television — the Haiti earthquake is the latest example — represent sympathetic news reporting at its finest or does it instead violate the barrier between public need-to-know and the transformation of disaster into a decency-warping carnival?
Is television coverage of the awful an obligatory ode to human endurance and resilience — as billed — or is it instead a shamelessly rationalized foray into human humiliation, which if true would make it car-wreck voyeurism?
Catastrophe has always been the greatest show on earth. Early painters regularly took up the theme of war and natural disasters, though usually through romantic filters. People partook of the grim so long as they were made to feel like noble bystanders.
Early photographers also focused on battlefields, though the 20th century’s two world wars literally deadened some of that zeal.
But the genocide photo albums — brutish, naked, snuff-like — were at the time shockingly unprecedented.
Explicitness in all things has mostly undone the shocking. Viewing the hurt of others is advertised not only as breaking news but also as a chastening way to shape personal self-awareness and demonstrate both the preciousness and precariousness of life. To buffer the impact, bad tidings get mood music. Haiti’s ongoing “Hell Show” now rivals recent primetime productions, including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
Society loves a soap opera, the chief executive of NBC said recently. But emotionalism aside, extremes of actual hardship and depravity have never before been transformed into entertainment. Visual extremism is now so blithely pervasive it assassinates appropriateness in the name of press freedom. That freedom is in turn embroidered with cameos about heroes or redemption.
Most offensive — for their misplaced sincerity — are efforts to frame hurt and depravity in terms of caring. Help lines and relief fund options are furnished to offset hit-and-run coverage that in fact is loyal only to affliction’s overwhelming command over the human spirit.
Increasingly, that command reflects the predatory priorities of an affluent generation, which in the absence of world war forages for adrenaline amid broken furniture. Mass media is addicted to landscape-sized passion plays and epic humbling is shopped for effect.
Like all addictions, it has committed apologists. Dread and breakage submitted into evidence are earnestly explained as a measure of democratic public service. Anything else is tyranny.
Not everyone can live with such speciousness.
Near midnight on July 25,1956, the Italian ocean liner “Andrea Doria” collided with the Swedish liner “Stockholm” in heavy fog off Nantucket. Early the next morning, news photographers hired small planes to fly over the Italian liner. As one of the planes completed a low-level swoop over the stricken ship, its pilot saw a uniformed men gesturing at him fiercely from the bridge.
It was “Andrea Doria” Captain Piero Calamai, shaking a clenched fist.