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“Hurricane Porn”?: The Aesthetics of Authenticity and Nature’s Wrath

Among the most widely circulated manipulated Hurricane Sandy images was this storm cloud imposed on the Statue of Liberty (image from snopes.com)

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy photographers shared ten images every second on Instagram, documenting the storm, testifying to the power of nature, and underscoring the internet’s power to shape our collective imagination.  The most ridiculous images following the storm, though, came from Brazilian model Nana Gouvea, who wandered about the hurricane-strewn landscape posing for clumsily seductive pictures alongside crushed cars, downed trees, and refuse-strewn streets, producing what Huffington Post dubbed genuine “hurricane porn” (she was immediately lampooned with a tumblr page and a facebook page).

While Gouvea parasitically stumbled about New York, a host of other photographers posted images that were not quite so voyeuristic, but they also were not utterly “authentic” representations of the storm.  The Tumblr page Is Twitter Wrong? posted images of the storm that were clearly manipulated; snopes ridiculed several of the most obviously photoshopped images; The Atlantic posted a series of images emblazoned “real,” “fake,” and “unverified”; mashable posted many of the same images; and the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog ran an article “Caution: That Hurricane Sandy Photo May Not be Real”.

This image of storm damage in North Carolina is not photoshopped, but it was taken from an angle that few if any instagram photographers had (image courtesy North Carolina Dept of Transportation).

This discourse over storm images illuminates how aesthetic representations shape our imaginations of complex if inexpressible realities like the experience of a natural disaster.  Much of this discussion is a journalism discourse about authenticity, a conversation on attribution that matters in news rooms where the press aspires to present something in which we can believe.  Craig Silverman, for example, counsels his followers to verify all images before re-posting, re-tweeting, or otherwise sharing them socially.  This is good advice for a journalist, but much of what circulates online is more important for its power to simply evoke responses, and doctored images can induce us to humor, outrage, sympathy, or response.

Sharks did not really enter New Jersey as flood waters rose, but this is an amusing thought (image from snopes)

Authenticity may not be the most useful metaphor to understand these storm pictures in particular and aesthetic representation online in general.  That is, we increasingly live in an internet environment that is akin to walking down Main Street USA in Disneyland; Disneyland announces itself as a lie in which we willingly participate from the very outset, and most of us expect if not actually desire clever if not beautiful distortions and misrepresentations in such popular culture.  A discussion focused on the most conventional notion of “objective reality” risks being reduced to a simplistic polarization of authenticity and artificiality that does not capture how anybody with instagram, photoshop, or the most commonplace camera-phone shapes every picture they take.  Flickr and instagram are loaded with straightforward pictures of the storm and its aftermath, but they share space with a host of images that attempt to articulate inexpressible experiences by doctoring with images in small and dramatic ways alike.

If the hurricane was not sufficiently intimidating or impressive, this image renders it breathtaking (image from paul maszlik)

Pictures are compelling representations of the power of nature, so astounding funnel cloud images and turbulent flood waters appear in numerous pictures of natural disasters.  Even the best-timed images taken by gifted photographers fail to capture the concrete experience of uncertainty and powerlessness within a disaster, so photographers and artists aspire to produce visual representations that will evoke such an experience.  In the hands of the media that representation often has struck observers as parasitic: weather reporters find a place out on the boardwalk where they’ll be buffeted by winds and risk being swept away by breaking waves;  people emotionally gutted by the bad fortune that destroyed their homes are paraded in front of cameras unable to capture what they have lost; and intensive if not ceaseless media coverage of meteorological disaster brings every possible apocalyptic threat to our doorstep.  Simply telling a compelling or amusing story is not always acceptable, because there is a genuine social impact to disaster narratives and their representation in the media.  In 2010 David Sirota blasted media coverage of an earthquake that savaged Haiti, arguing that “Like any X-rated content, this smut is all flesh and no substantive plot. The lens flits between body parts and journalists pulling perverse Cronkite-in-Vietnam impressions …. But there is little discussion of how western Hispaniola was a man-made disaster before an earthquake made it a natural one…. The destitution is tragic — and a reflection, in part, of colonial domination.” This is when representation becomes voyeuristic and risks effacing human suffering or ignoring the state’s failure to respond to a genuine tragedy.

Hurricane Clouds over Statue of Liberty image taken from Snopes.com

North Carolina Coastline image courtesy NCDOT Communications

Statue of Liberty image from Paul Maszlik deviant art.com

Shark image from Cinemablend

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