Regarding Vulture Culture

When grief becomes the single story

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag challenges the supposed authority of the photograph in transmitting the pain of others, reminding that a photo is fixed by a frame and that it always already contains a point of view. Sontag writes, “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.”

A story, like a photograph, contains frames of its own. Stories, too, wield the power to represent and to misrepresent at great cost and to great effect. This is why critical awareness around how stories get told, and to/for whom are they told in the first place, is essential. Put more simply: who sees and who is restricted to being seen?

And, when capturing grief, what gets left out of the frame? 

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Zoe S Todd, (@ZoeSTodd), a Métis assistant professor of anthropology at Carleton University, recently took to Twitter to express frustration with a CBC interview, specifically, and the co-opting of Indigenous grief by Canadian mainstream media, more broadly, evident in coverage of the Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie trials, saying:

“Mainstream media behave like VULT-URES when you want a story about us grieving our dead. You circle us at vigils, you shove your cameras in our face. We have to navigate whether to agree to speak about our refusal of the state. And then you edit it all out anyway.”  (@ZoeSTodd, 6:22 a.m., Feb. 24, 2018).

Grief, too, is a story. The grief and hurt that reverberates throughout the history of Indigenous-settler relations is both searing and cavernous, highlighted by the ongoing and repetitive failures of the justice system to honour the stolen lives of Indigenous peoples.

However, grief is just part of a larger story of a people’s struggle and survivance – one whose vibrancy and nuance is often left on the cutting room floor, out of frame. Todd goes on to call this process of mining grief, editing out and reshaping institutional critique, “extractive” – a not insignificant term that invokes a long history of violent resource extraction by settlers on Indigenous lands.

Sontag connects the camera to the gun: both require a “shooter” and a subject, both freeze or fix that subject at the moment of shooting. A story also fixes its subject within its frame – here, a grief frame –that does not allow for action, for movement, and for the robust fullness that all life requires.

To that end, Todd continues: “Please don’t ask me to speak about my grief for your consumption anymore. Call me when you want to discuss my work, my amazing friends and colleagues who are doing world-changing work. Call me when you aren’t desperate for a clip to fill your depressing news story cycle.” (@ZoeSTodd, 6:27 a.m., Feb. 24, 2018).

While certainly compelling, grief is often too simple a story, compressed and flattened to fit a predetermined and woefully generic format. Instead, perhaps the way forward will be revealed in the frames and stories collected from the cutting room floor, stitched back together. Frames and stories of excellence and survivance that swim alongside heartbreak and devastation, that have always existed, that also see.

Dunja Kovacevic is the comments editor for The Uniter and co-founder of Dear Journal, a feminist print anthology. She identifies as a recovering academic and has recently forayed into wearing colour. Okay, one colour. It’s red.

Published in Volume 72, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 22, 2018)

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