So here we are, on a day and in a time when the tears fall as rain on the mountains; when the sun is all the brighter in the sky, for our knowing it is still there. Coming in through my front door this evening, to the fragrant smells of wine and paella – my landlady is a great cook, and of the kindness that is bent around caring for others, so that I am always invited to join in at meals – I felt myself to be Home. The dog was curled up by the fire; warm smells of pine went trailing golden fingers through the house. Where others are not so fortunate, and have been hounded from the place of their birth, the land where ancestral bones lie deep as legends, I can claim this place for my sanctuary. I know a newly-learned gratitude for all that I have, those seemingly small and insignificant things, as I once knew them after coming home from hospital. But it is too easy to forget, to become complacent again.
The wind is already turning blue on my side of the world, with a rawness in the pale arabesque of the morning. In these tumultuous days, we are leased into softer eyes and gentler smiles; our sharp shining edges are smoothed over by empathy. Shared sorrow, frustration, anger, fear. Doubt. Confusion. And still, more fear, as we wonder – with each click and scroll – what will happen next.
On Tuesday, 19th August, the world saw the face of its foe – what was revealed of it – hovering like a baleful moon above that of James Wright Foley, a US citizen and freelance photojournalist, captured in Syria in 2012. Though about to be taken by that most futile act called murder, for an even more futile cause, James didn’t flinch or try to pull away. He probably knew well enough where the contents of that video would end up, how it would be used for propaganda, as a shock of reality; for the awareness of the wider world, for the threat of the same fate meted out to others. Still, his face remained set as that of a clock, dialling down on its own time.
Perhaps the same is true for those who have watched the grim facts of that video in full. Perhaps they too, haven’t flinched. But, whatever their agenda, it cannot even begin to be measured against James’ own strength.
The perpetrators are more than willing to take the rest of humanity down with them, on their way to a faux-martyrdom. As James Kirkup of The Telegraph rightly pointed out, to call James’ death an “execution” is to give it more honour than it deserves. He was murdered, by hands and a heart too cold to know love and respect for another.
Walking home tonight, I found myself mulling over this, and other things that have come to pass. The blue-black cloud of inertia that had filled me up like ink sifting through water, slowly slipped away. In its place wove a silver thread of desperate hope, twined about with the pale green of worry … a thin petrol-rainbow of fear.
Passing through our local Muslim community, I found myself faced with the troubled faces and downcast eyes that are sadly reminiscent of other times. Such fear is palpable, like the wavering heat rising from a radiator. 9/11. 7/7. 22/5. Numbers that would be meaningless, without the context of death and tragedy, of atrocities carried out in the name of Islam; when it is the innocent followers of that faith who must bear the fallout. As though they had any part in it at all.
“We do not tolerate it, we forbid ISIS in Indonesia… This is a new wake-up call to international leaders all over the world, including Islamic leaders… [to] review how to combat extremism. Changing paradigms on both sides are needed – how the West perceives Islam and how Islam perceives the West.” – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia.
I remember the face of my friend, who once walked the beat as a hate-crime officer, giving a sympathetic ear and trustworthy pledge of hope to those he served in the Muslim community; and his words, full of sadness, telling me of the young sons and daughters taken by shadows of fear; the mothers and fathers left behind, bewildered and terrified for their children. For each other.
I read the latest blog entry of my dear friend Nillu, who is a Shia Ismaili Muslim, and the fear becomes personal; it becomes a pale rim around my vision, half-thinking about what is best left unsaid, unknown. The future is what happens when it arrives, not what we try to foresee. She is Nillu, one of the loveliest and most empathetic women I have ever known, and the thought that anyone might think negative thoughts of her, based upon her religion, burns out my mind. She is the peace of her faith, personified.
I recall how on Monday, when our worlds met at the borderline of thought and dream, I had told my other beloved friend Amira that, while the little things matter in this life, the finer details, we cannot escape the Here and Now, how this affects us. When we hit those patches of black ice, nothing is so very important than to get the words down before the usual inertia of getting-by steers us back towards equilibrium. How else would we know, how else would we remember what had hit us hard? (Sometimes, it really is a case of diving into the nearest cafe or stairwell, to record a piece of existence that would otherwise go unnoticed, dropped like a coin into a well; a brief glitter, then blackness.)
To which she agreed, as ever she would, for we are alike as twins in mindset. Her own blog entry wrapped itself about the anger and fear felt for Ferguson, a suburb in her hometown of St Louis. While the tension has since begun to unwind, Amira’s entry – posted in lieu of a literary article about fiction and publishing – told its own story of the immediacy of that situation, how it caught and affected her.
“Screw that blog post I wrote about literature and fiction – it can wait. There are more important things at stake right now.”
And yet, for all this – for all my waffle and whimsy in attempting to make sense of what I and others have witnessed, day by day, on rolling news feeds and carefully edited images – from the scene of James Foley’s last moments, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine – I find myself, at the end of this day, so full of dark thoughts … and somehow still willing to get up and try again. For a smile and a prayer, at least.
Entering the cathedral for a walk between those dark-wood polished pews, drifting with the dust motes that are like so many silver sparks, I spoke aloud the words and cried the tears held back all day. I commended his memory to whoever might have been listening, anyone or no one. I have no particular faith. I just walk where there is peace to be found, between cool marble columns etched over with long-ago dates and names, upon rainbow-glitter sprays flung from the stained glass windows.
James, I didn’t know you, or your family. But you symbolized what I want to be, what I want to achieve, and it’s for this reason that I take your words to heart, more than most.
You had your romantic ideals discoloured by reality, and still carried on. For that, no act of inhumanity can diminish your memory.
Following an unpleasant encounter with an unedited photograph taken from a jihadist Twitter account – tossed about with the carelessness of a tennis ball, among people who ought to have known better than to give the perpetrators the notoriety they seek – I decided to find out more about graphic content, its origins and uses. The principle focus was on how this type of media fits into the growing scope of social networking, as an instantaneous publisher. With the rise of portable technology, we have nothing to fear in terms of missing a moment in the world. What we have to fear instead, is the decrease in ethical judgement when it comes to sharing what we have found – live, unedited, raw footage, often taken from conflict zones and scenes of tragic events, passed about to … what? Inspire retaliation? Instil dread? The lines grow blurred. What is useful propaganda to one party, is click-bait to another; and to still others, it is a symbolic vocalization of what cannot be described in words. Though I do wish more people would try. For that matter, Twitter has at least started cracking down on graphic content, and is actively suspending accounts which would use it for propaganda and intimidation.
For all that I am a writer, with words supposedly my weapons (and you would think, some kind of clarity), metaphors and symbolism are all too often my fall-back. Such is the delight of Twitter, with its reams of information-imagery and algorithms, that I am never short of those stars for a constellation of emotional expression. A picture can sum up far more than I could put into words. That being said, I pull up short before pressing any buttons on the sort of content that has become an unpleasant side effect of following certain topics, in order to learn more. I’ll confess now, my fingers have itched. Some images have sent my mind down into a blankness that only long hours of walking, and missing a meal – startling my body awake with hunger – could shred. For long moments, I pause, wanting to show those who follow me – “Look. Look at this. Look at what these people who are not people, have done to this woman, this man, this child. Did you ever think that blood could run so thickly, that it turns black?”
But no. Because why should I be so selfish as to pretend there isn’t a sneaking voyeuristic pleasure-horror to be gained out of seeing others’ reactions? Or is it that I want to stand a mirror up between us to find the same emotions, the same words, to know that what I have seen is real, and not the darkest nightmare?
Oh, I still long to show you all, to make you understand how terrible the suffering was of those people … But I don’t know it myself, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t experience it. I know nothing of the situation, but what I’ve seen from a tiny set of pixels in a frame, holding the last image of a person who was alive and breathing once, beloved, longed for, educated, born. That picture, that video, is but a fragment of who they were. Whatever the perpetrators of their death thought to gain in taking that last image, or allowing it to be taken, to be passed around on social networking sites, they can’t diminish these facts.
So why, then, should I have been so upset to see that image – the first piece of graphic media I had come across on Twitter – treated the way that it was, transferred from one user to another, to illustrate the point of the murderer’s violence?
Ah, there’s the paradox. I guess I would call it “dignity in death.”
This article from the Guardian, summed up what I have been trying to spit out for weeks about the perks and perils of sharing graphic content on social networking sites. Blogs such as this one, written by BBC journalist Alex Murray, and this on The Conversation, have helped me to see both sides of the flipped coin. Because I want to know how it feels to face that kind of reality, when it’s all caught in pixels on a screen in the newsroom, with only a hand to reach out and no way of changing the ending. I want to know, so I can better understand it.
“Whether or not a news organisation is right to use graphic material is a matter of opinion. But what this article has hopefully illustrated is that in certain cases the decisions to print or broadcast are taken with care and with a genuine desire to ‘do the right thing’. The mainstream media, if we can speak so generally, has its multitude of failings. But let’s not forget that when dealing with upsetting and harrowing imagery, journalists do not exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by the moral uncertainties that we all face.”
– John Jewell,
Director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University.
We are all beholden to each other’s goodwill and ethical standards, on social networking sites – it’s a push-pull system of give and take. Each of us have a duty of care to our friends and followers, who come from diverse socio-cultural and religious backgrounds. In cyberspace, after all, there are fewer limitations on what can be seen; it is difficult to erase certain things from under the eyelids.
And we are not even on the ground as witnesses, feeling the whump of explosives and feeling the sting of heat, or handling raw footage for editing.
“That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as ‘material’. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.
This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report ‘the story’, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say:
‘I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.'” – Alex Murray, “The Hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world.”
While graphic media, submitted by citizens as user-generated content, can be used to raise awareness – drawing in a wider audience to the fracture-lines appearing in our world, and bringing to bear the reality of life under conflict – it is also known for its white-out effect of desensitization. There is the Long Blink of ignorance left in bliss – which none of us has the right to deny another, for our individual worlds are populated by enough troubles – or the self-propagating cycle of seeking out yet stronger content, more brutal scenes, to achieve the same effect. Then there is the consideration of safety for those with the means to produce such content.
“The temptation is to be out at the very front with them – where the fighting is more dramatic, more filmic. Front-line reporting – capturing and communicating the essence of war – is always a gamble, but one where we think we can set the odds… The further forward you go, the more powerful the pictures, but the greater the chances of being killed or injured. Our flak jackets and helmets are far from invincible. As a cub reporter I was always told never to become the story.” – Alastair Leithead, “Hazards of war reporting from the Libyan front line.”
“Journalists now constantly have to make difficult decisions about protecting the safety of people caught up in these events… But being aware of the need to do this doesn’t always come naturally if you’re not used to reporting wars from the newsroom.
What about the monitoring of phone calls or even email traffic?
What language can be used to identify yourself without endangering the contributor?
How do we introduce ourselves?
Is Gmail safer than Hotmail?” – Matthew Eltringham, Editor of the BBC College of Journalism website; “The new frontline is inside the newsroom.”
James Foley had the backing of the GlobalPost, based in Boston, but took no fewer risks than his peers. His death brings up again what freelance journalists face when reporting from warzones, “lightly resourced, laughably paid, almost wholly uninsured… often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone.” There has been particular focus on Syria, where James was taken, which has been labelled “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists” to work in, by The Committee to Protect Journalists.
“At least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, including some who died over the border in Lebanon and Turkey. More than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria; with frequent abductions, some of which go unpublicized, it is difficult to know exactly how many. CPJ estimates that approximately 20 journalists, both local and international, are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State.”
I still have a petrol-rainbow trickle of an idea about what I would like to do in the near future. There are big decisions to be made. But more and more, with each turning leaf and golden bar of sunlight turning to brass, with each red-rim eye of a news story, I find my thoughts turning to my family. I see the bravery of the Foleys – read his mother’s words – and must now think on such things as consequences. For all that I have no further responsibilities or ties, other than my current job, there are still those left behind to consider.
There is only so much the human mind can take, before it must shutter down and shine out. I end my days now, after online research,by turning my phone off and sticking my head into an Alice Hoffman book. It’s this, or break under the heavy iron band stretched over my skull, leaving its tang in my throat, a soreness around my eyes.
There are always those sparks of drifting dust – our histories, our lives – to call us back. The beautiful smile of a friend, tweeting a picture of herself with family; the unique charm of a compliment for a posted story. The fluffed fur of a kitten with ocean eyes, caught in a noir photo; the lingering words of one who lies on the peripheral line where the sky meets the sea. The pleasant swatch of colours found in a tweet describing the morning-sounds of birds on the feeder, and bacon on the stove.
For all that the blood is a book, to be read over and again in the hopes of learning from our pasts … we live for the future, and it is Now. So while sharing the seemingly mundane, the cheerful, the cherished, we take our stand against those who would spread only darkness. When we speak of the dead, those taken from us in the most diabolical ways, let it be with images of who they really were – the people who lived, worked, spoke and fought for freedom, ours and theirs; for knowledge, for one more assignment, for one more day. In using hashtags like #ISISmediablackout and #StopPutin, we set our faces to the changing winds of tomorrow – denying the murderers and the liars the voices that would continue the fear and oppression – while remembering that today is for Us, and the memories of those who are gone.
It’s only when we stem the creativity, the playful tweets, the Good Mornings, the most wire-grin banter, that the perpetrators of that insidious fear have won.
Well, that’s me done. Hope I haven’t inadvertently offended anyone or left something important out; if I have, drop me a line and I’ll apologise. Otherwise, it’s
If you want to continue following my work, I’m at https://lamplighthaven.wordpress.com now. Ta.