Saturday, October 2, 2010

International Relations

Trauma and the Politics of Emotions: Constituting Identity, Security and Community after the Bali Bombing

8.Visual representations of trauma: the role of images in the media

Images of the bombing and subsequent acts of mourning reinforced the emotional undertones of the trauma’s linguistic representation. Initial images portrayed the devastation and carnage that the bombs had wreaked. Consider the front page of The Australian on the fi rst day of full media coverage that followed.58 The newspaper devoted half the page to a photograph of survivors as they staggered from the burning shell of the buildings (Figure 1). The photograph captures two Australian survivors, injured and helping one another. They are alone: no other victims or rescue workers are in sight. They struggle forward as if escaping the depths of a truly traumatic situation. Around them the building burns in a tangled mess.

What is normally kept inside – the hardware of wires and plumbing – lies exposed. Whether consciously done or not, the image creates a vivid visual metaphor, one that sums up the bewilderment and upside-down world of those directly affected by the bombing. Images such as this one are instrumental to the expression and collectivising dynamics of the trauma.59 By graphically presenting the horror and pain of unknown others, the image brings viewers up short. It seems to present things as they really are. Distinct here is the feeling of authenticity, of being there and experiencing the horror too. Forcing one to look at the image may not only prompt one to imagine the victims’ trauma, but engage emotions generally associated with witnessing: shock, incomprehension, fear and the guilt of looking on. Yet in the sense that it portrays Australian survivors, this image can be seen to bring the catastrophe and its devastation into focus in a culturally identifi able – as well as emotionally directive and collectivising – way.

Viewing the image in conjunction with the headline is in this respect particularly illustrative. Once again, although the bombing occurred on foreign shores, viewers are prompted to make sense of the image and the catastrophe as one perpetrated upon their ‘home’. Representing the event in this way pushes the catastrophe into the lives of Australians, making it appear to be a trauma for Australians more generally and not just the individuals who were directly impacted. Another way to highlight the collectivising role of images of the Bali bombing is to examine how – over the course of one week – the publicly available images created a particular narrative, or story.

First presented was the above image in Figure 1, one of arresting intensity and visual power. By representing the unrepresentable the image confronts viewers with confusion and many unknowns. As soon as the following day, however, front-page photographs markedly changed. They were full of the meaning that this initial image lacked. Signifi cant here is the contrast of images – the replacing of shock with images that provided solace or grounds for other forms of emotional understanding. What followed were the smiling faces of the young Australians who were either missing or pronounced dead. These photographs were generally taken from family albums. Young Australians were presented drinking beer with their mates, cradling infant children, and sitting on beaches soaking in sun. Accompanying headlines both questioned how such a tragedy could happen to so many innocent and fun-loving Australians and gave warning of an impending ‘season of terror’.60 Photographs and headlines such as these locate a wider sense of societal or cultural meaning.

Emotions associated with witnessing are guided as well. The images ‘fi ll in’ many of the unknowns – who was affected by the bombing and how – and in so doing provide points of commonality that help viewers distinguish how and for whom they should feel. The same could be said of the public photographs of those in private mourning. Consider the image featured on page 1 of The Australian on 21 October (Figure 2). Again occupying almost half the front page, families were shown – heads bowed and weeping – at a church memorial service. This image, and indeed even the accompanying headline (‘Grieving for Lost Innocents’) appears as a normal and perhaps even a-political visual depiction of the reality of mourning. However, it is precisely in its commonality and so-called ‘obviousness’61 that the image gains representative power.62 It presents ‘ordinary’ families expressing grief in ordinary ways. Certainly many – if not all – who saw this picture would be able to recall similar experiences themselves or (empathetically) imagine how this process might be.

Survivors, families and Australians who themselves bear witness through the media’s representations were also featured in visibly emotional stages of grief: families greeting their returned loved ones, the hundreds who rallied together at national commemorative services, and the fl owing tears and embraces of children as they looked on in disbelief. Politicians were also shown expressing their condolences, presenting honours to those who died. Foremost, then Prime Minister John Howard was pictured in front of hundreds of people paying tribute to those who lost their lives.63 As temporary and fl eeting as these images may seem they play an important role in constructing a collective vision of individual trauma. By harnessing the ‘rawness’ of the event and the ensuing processes of grief the photographs provide a social space conducive to the collective acknowledgement of and reckoning with trauma. They resonate emotionally with viewers and can (in often unrecognised and unintentional ways) act to pull people together with what seems to be their power to authentically represent and create meaning.

In showing how ordinary Australians work through the immensity of loss and grief, photographs of the bombing implicitly parallel the experiences of victims and their families with those of Australians who were bearing witness through the television and newspapers back home. Visual representations of the bombing may therefore be linked with feelings of sympathy, empathy, compassion and solidarity, feelings that are often seen as instrumental to the social attachments needed to reinforce a sense of national identity and community.

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