March 29, 2011
News videographer Dan Chung’s footage of the tsunami devastation is moving, literally and morally. Shot on assignment for the Guardian, the work has attracted a good deal of attention — and no small amount of criticism, with many commenters objecting to Chung’s “aestheticization” of catastrophe. (Chung responds to the criticisms on his blog.) The version of the video produced for the Guardian presents the same footage with on-location sound and voiceovers from survivors, to much different effect.
Creative choices Chung made in producing his video are certainly fit topics for critical attention. The qualities of framing and commentary furnished by the aesthetic impulse, however, are by no means out of place in journalism, as many of Chung’s critics have implied. As is frequently pointed out, the flat documentary approach is a means of framing the world every bit as fabricated as Chung’s modest elaborations; objectivity is an uncanny muse (and a misplaced one, arguably, in the midst of great suffering). Chung’s piano music may indeed be a trifle sentimentalizing; it’s easy to prefer the found audio in the Guardian version. But that doesn’t put the idea of a musical soundtrack for what is ostensibly journalism out of bounds. Television news magazine use brooding musical passages, albeit often to maudlin effect. Better, think of what Werner Herzog does pairing documentary footage with classical music and opera — working with visuals that push the very bounds of documentary, as in his recent commissioned work, an interpretation of the “O Soave Fanciulla” aria from La Boheme featuring Ethiopian tribal folk performing stilted tableaux.
The piece might bring to mind Leni Riefenstahl’s troubling infatuation with the Nuba people, skewered as “fascinating fascism” by Susan Sontag. But I think Herzog is playing very cagily with our romantic expectations of tribal people; the performers in his video stare back questioningly, even accusingly. They evince inner lives and a range of needs and experiences lying far beyond the camera’s ken.
Herzog’s camera pans and zooms, but remains fixed in place. With Chung’s post-tsunami footage, the tracking shots (likely produced with a glidecam rig) produce a powerful parallax effect, rounding out the destruction in a way that still photography struggles to accomplish. The cramped extent of these tracking shots also furnishes a powerful kinesthetic sense of ruin pressing in on all sides. Chung claims that he composed these shots to provide viewers with a fuller experience of what it was like to be on the ground in Miyagi prefecture. It’s an understandable intent — but I think that the power of such images resides in their ability to remind us that we aren’t there — that people are mourning somewhere in the world — and the gap between them and us is all that separates us from suffering.