Wednesday 20 September 2017

Empathy goes astray as we cross a line to disaster porn

It's not necessary to see a person's death in Grenfell Tower to know that it's horrific, writes Sarah Caden

WAKING TO A NIGHTMARE: Fire-fighters’ attempts to damp down the blaze were to no effect as the flames engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London. Photo: Rick Finder/PA
WAKING TO A NIGHTMARE: Fire-fighters’ attempts to damp down the blaze were to no effect as the flames engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London. Photo: Rick Finder/PA

Sarah Caden

On 9/11, as people fell from the Twin Towers, onlookers began photographing and videoing their descent to death. In the face of this, Bill Feehan, then the deputy chief of the New York Fire Department, was seen to scream at one man filming the fallers: "Don't you have any human decency?"

Similarities between 9/11 and the inferno at Grenfell Tower were quickly pointed out last week - even as small fires still burned in the London block. The image of a burning tower brought us back, of course. It was also, however, the accounts of babies being thrown from windows to hoped-for safety, the sight of desperate people at windows in the sky, gasping for clean air, running out of oxygen and time and screaming for help.

We saw it, and we experienced again how wrong it feels to witness a stranger's death. Or did we? After 9/11, photographs of people falling from the Twin Towers became pretty much taboo. The New York Times published the 'Falling Man' photo on September 12 and then elected never to show it again. The breach of privacy, the ogling of such an intimate moment, was deemed by many to be wrong.

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