The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine

09/03/2014 11:17

What does our addiction to disaster porn say about us?

Journalist Simon Shuster said it was “straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.” Writer Philip Gourevitch thought it was more like Bruegel. But the main word to describe the violent clashes in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv was “apocalyptic.” As in: “This is one of the most apocalyptic photos I’ve ever seen in the news,” as Wired reporter Steve Silberman tweeted below a picture shared more than 1,500 times. And the BBC: “Ukraine crisis: Kiev night clashes ‘apocalyptic.’” And ABC News: “The Kiev Protests Are Starting to Look Apocalyptic.”

The Kyiv protests were also starting to look like clickbait. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Business Insider, Talking Points Memo, Buzzfeed and Mashable had all published their own listicle versions of what Huffington Post called “Ukraine Crisis: 12 Apocalyptic Pictures After Nation’s Deadliest Day.” High in resolution, low on explanation, the articles painted Ukraine’s carnage by numbers.

A new genre had been born: the apocalypsticle.


Ukraine has never been a country that attracted mainstream media interest. The tens of thousands of people viewing, sharing and posting photos of the Eastern European state likely had little knowledge of what Ukraine looked like before the violence—protesters are now claiming at least 100 people have died in the latest clashes—took place. The fascination of the photos is not that Ukraine no longer look familiar, but that it finally does. Ukraine looks like a movie set, like World War II, like the apocalypse. It spurs the imagination because it is real.

Ukraine looks like nothing is really supposed to look, and so no one can stop looking.

What does it mean for Ukrainians? Few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic. Ask not what Buzzfeed can do for Ukrainians, but what dying Ukrainians can do for Buzzfeed. (Among the things Buzzfeed could not do: caption the photos or spell “Ukrainian” correctly.)

One could charitably see the apocalypsticle as dumbing up. At least the pictures were of the actual people in the conflict, instead of, say, characters from The Hills explaining Syria. Western websites were giving Ukrainian activists what they wanted: foreign media attention. “I am a native of Kyiv. I want you to know why thousands of people all over my country are on the streets,” a Ukrainian activist said in a typical video pleading for coverage.

Unfortunately, the answer to the activist’s question of “why” is ignored in a clickbait competition where a picture is worth zero words. The only “wh-“ word that matters is “whoa”: Look at the fire, the water, the bullets, the blood. Look, but do not listen. Look inward, at the movie you watched that looked like Ukraine, at the painting you saw that looked like Ukraine. Look at Ukraine without seeing Ukraine.

America has its own way of confronting unfathomable horrors: It makes them comprehensible by transforming them into porn. We have poverty porn, disaster porn and, in the ultimate American reconciliation of the sublime, weather porn. We seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence.

Pornography has long been seen as prurient but inevitable, and, in the Internet era, so ubiquitous as to be banal. Now apparently pain is, too. In the era of disaster porn, watching people suffer provokes the same sly admission of guilt as watching people have sex.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer in St. Louis.

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