“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, “the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists.”
Kenji Nagai, who was killed a month ago at the age of 50, was one of Sontag’s “specialized tourists.” As a photojournalist from Japan, Nagai traveled to conflict-ridden regions, documenting the things he saw for the benefit of the rest of the world. The Times of England reported that Nagai’s mantra was, “Someone has to go to the places nobody wants to go.”
Given his role behind the camera, it’s ironic that Nagai has recently become famous as the subject of a photograph. You might have seen the picture by now: Nagai, in shorts, flip-flops and a tee-shirt, lies on his back on the wet pavement in Yangon, Myanmar, clutching a camera in his right hand. A uniformed Burmese soldier stands a few feet away, pointing a rifle at his exposed body.
The clip from Japanese television, which can be seen on YouTube, is even more explicit. It shows a stampede of people rushing down a street as Burmese soldiers unload from trucks, carrying riot shields. Suddenly, Nagai flies through the air and lands on his back. Bullet shots ring out. Nagai flails on the ground.
The photographs that emerged from Myanmar over the course of September told a powerful story of the popular protests there that reached their peak during the early days of this month. In the pictures, thousands of Buddhist monks in bright orange robes shuffle through rainy streets, sometimes singing, sometimes silent. Local citizens help to wash their feet, or walk alongside them, or watch in amazement as row after row of monks continue their long march.
It didn’t really matter if you knew that they were protesting severely inflated fuel prices and the 18-year-long house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the last democratic election held in Myanmar, or if you only had a cursory sense of the dangerous opposition they faced. On their own, the images served as a testament to the startling power that peaceful protests still have to undermine repressive and unlawful authority.
For days, I tracked the pictures of the orange-robed monks on the internet and in newspapers. I felt a kind of awe for their bravery and endurance. When the inevitable governmental response began in late September, the photographs in the papers showed riot squads attacking the once-dignified monks with tear gas and guns. And then, all of a sudden, the pictures stopped.
It turns out that the military junta that controls Myanmar came up with a particularly devastating solution to the image problem that the monks’ protest was creating for them throughout the world. When the assassination of foreign journalists like Nagai didn’t get the job done, they simply shut down the internet.
This kind of communications crackdown has terrible implications for the people trapped inside Myanmar. The United Nations telecoms agency declared that the government had violated its citizens’ right to communicate, and in the information age, that’s lethal. But the sudden drop-off of access to images and reports from Myanmar also raises necessary questions for us, those watching from the outside.
When Sontag wrote that “being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” she was criticizing the institution of the passive viewer, who is so inundated with pictures of horror that they lose their power to shock. Now that what we can see of Myanmar is limited, will we turn to the next page of the newspaper to take in our daily dose of disaster? Or will we choose instead to consider the viewing of foreign tragedies not merely as an experience, but as an obligation?
That peaceful protests are at the heart of the Myanmar crackdowns only makes it more important that we continue to seek out news and pictures of the events that have happened there. Our current method of protesting, in America at large and on college campuses in specific, tends to be self-indulgent rather than effective. Protesting policies that we hate seems like a noble thing to do, and so we feel personally vindicated even as we fail to effect change. The Myanmar protests had so much power because they struck at an institutional weak spot, presenting the world with an accurate view of a government obsessed with controlling its image. If nothing else, they can inspire us to reconsider the ways we try to achieve change in our own institutions.
Kenji Nagai took the responsibility of image-sharing seriously. As viewers, it is the least we can do to make the most of our unprecedented access to information by seeking out images equally actively.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.