The ethics and politics of
death images in contemporary visual culture

review by Lucas Anderson

Jennifer Malkowski. Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 269 pages.

Be it through documentary footage or narrative fiction, film uses and also profoundly influences our understanding of dying and death. This film-death relation is the topic of Jennifer Malkowski’s book Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary, which endeavours to identify the ethics and politics of documenting, distributing, and looking at death on film in this era of digital image-making technologies and new media. Malkowski analyzes how developments in digital technologies have restructured how we encounter and respond to images of the deaths of others. Such research is necessitated by the fact that death images that document institutionalized oppression now overlap with unethical online media consumption, wherein death images are treated as spectacles and are co-opted on exploitative websites. While the book traces the promise in ethical and political possibilities afforded by digital cinematography and online media sharing services, it argues that these developments have given rise to further ethical complications for documentary renderings of death, which have yet to harness a redemptive social purpose. In that sense, the argument is pessimistic.

Dying in Full Detail thoroughly chronicles the history of capturing death on film. The book’s four chapters follow a historical chronology so as to emphasize how digital technologies have now modified the process of documenting death—something formerly determined by celluloid film’s capabilities. Malkowski underscores that cultural attitudes toward death vary in different historical contexts, and that film intersects with, and sometimes influences, these particular historical moments. The book’s chief focus is on the ethics surrounding documentary footage of actual human death, but Malkowski’s analysis also weaves in references to narrative cinema’s depictions of death because these convey popular and influential interpretations of what dying looks like.

Malkowski’s study emphasizes that admirable ethical stances seldom motivate people filming or seeking out images of death. Rather, for those who film and view it, death often represents a grim curiosity given its unknowable qualities and inevitability. Such curiosity can lead to dispassionate, misguided, and unethical interactions with documentary images of death. Malkowski, on the other hand, commendably navigates this delicate topic, which is complicated by the diverse particulars of natural death, suicide, and deaths where someone is killed by another person or an outside force. The author’s approach upholds a humanistic ethics of serious compassion for the lives of those who are near or succumbing to death, and Malkowski remains careful to account for how film’s medium-specific qualities mediate interactions with death.

Although Malkowski makes clear that observing the end of a life stands as a powerful experience, Dying in Full Detail argues that this affective component should not overdetermine the reception of documentary images of death. The book does not deny the emotional intensity of such images, but it strives to establish a justification for engaging with images of death that would exceed the compassionate response to the dying subject’s mortality. Malkowski proposes that an ethics of filming death lies in the redemptive potential found in documentary depictions that would directly provoke social or political change by way of capturing and circulating images of deaths under oppressive circumstances. While this theory offers a credible solution to the abuse of death images, the author’s analysis finds that even this category of documentation is troublingly bound up in understandings of death as an aesthetic and cinematic event.

Dying in Full Detail will prove informative to readers who are interested in taking seriously the saturation of death images in contemporary visual culture. On this note, the book is an effective study of the convergence of moving image media and multiple online spaces; both media technology and the Internet are evolving so rapidly, they require sustained ethical and political analysis. In addition, historians and film scholars will value Malkowski’s rigorous knowledge of the history of “death culture” and of film history, as well as acknowledging documentary cinema that pursues alternative approaches to visualizing death. For example, the author’s praise for resistant works like Rithy Pahn’s The Missing Picture (2013) resonates amid the book’s primarily sombre and critical tone. Meanwhile, for a non-specialized readership, Malkowski’s lucid treatment of aesthetics, film theory, and new media theory makes for an accessible read that is assisted by the inclusion of references to popular Hollywood films and television shows.

Striking visuals are interspersed throughout Dying in Full Detail. These images, and Malkowski’s at times frank descriptions of the deaths considered in the book, do not shield readers from the unsettling and sometimes graphic realities of death; still, the selection of death images is neither exploitative nor needlessly gratuitous. Malkowski acts as the reader’s guide, carefully justifying the attention given to each image. Again, the images are used either to recover the ethics that are violated in misguided representations of death, or in an attempt to approach a social or political purpose for the given death image. Although the work’s concern lies in locating this redemptive meaning, its visuals will nonetheless affect readers and perhaps deter some from reading the book altogether. But images of these deaths exist, and they are increasingly common today.

Dying in Full Detail’s first chapter, “Capturing the ‘Moment’: Photography, Film, and Death’s Elusive Duration,” elucidates film’s interlinked relationship with death. The chapter begins with the advent of photography in the 1830s, continues through the arrival of motion picture film in the 1890s, and closes with the conclusion of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. During this time span, which accounts for the lead-up to the release of digital video, there was a cultural interest in revealing the “moment of death”—that instant when the living body becomes a lifeless corpse. Malkowski finds that celluloid documentary images consistently failed to capture this precise moment as a result of the restricted mobility of early photography equipment, celluloid film’s durational limitations, and the expense of film stock. Instead, Malkowski explains, this ethically suspect pursuit typically communicated death “too late,” showing corpses and post-mortem images rather than the moment of death. The chapter analyzes early war photography, lynching photographs, and images of Second World War-era atrocities to demonstrate this type of documentary imaging.

Malkowski, following the work of Vivian Sobchack, explains that violent deaths were overemphasized in the twentieth century due to the prevalence of warfare. Consequently, photography and both documentary and narrative cinema misled public understanding of death by representing it as an instantaneous and violent occurrence, while in fact most people continued to die slowly on deathbeds or in prolonged hospital stays. The “too late” kind of imagery began to cede to “on time” death documentaries in the 1960s and 1970s, notably in Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as well as in images from the Vietnam War, like the Execution of Nguyen Van Lem photograph from 1968. Still, the most common form of death went unrepresented while violent and dramatic images dominated screen representations of death in these decades.

Malkowski acknowledges a debt to Vivian Sobchack’s essay, “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” which established an analytical vocabulary for negotiating ethics vis-à-vis death on (celluloid) film. Sobchack’s 1984 essay persuasively defines five “gazes” and one “stare” that address the ethics, or lack thereof, present in different practices of filming images of death. Though in dialogue with Sobchack’s framework, Dying in Full Detail intervenes by addressing how the advent of digital film and online distribution channels requires additional terminology to supplement the type of ethical analysis that Sobchack delivered some three decades earlier. In classifying “gazes” of the digital era, Malkowski focuses on the affordances of digital image-making technologies, which include the greater immediacy and mobility found in portable digital and mobile phone cameras, as well as the extended durational capacities of digital video and digital film in comparison with celluloid film stock.

The book’s second chapter, “The Art of Dying, on Video: Deathbed Documentaries,” explores how the use of digital video permitted the creation of deathbed documentaries beginning in the 1980s. These documentaries reflect contextual, then prevalent cultural attitudes that valued an individualization of death – the end of life was to be determined on one’s own terms, and the making of these films assisted in this difficult process. One notable trend in deathbed documentaries was the emergence of films documenting gay men who were dying of AIDS. Malkowski’s analysis suggests that as much as these films achieved political visibility for dying AIDS victims, they possessed limited political value because they were individualized and therefore often more generally unrelatable. These were personalized films that focused on life and the grieving process while doing little to illuminate death itself or motivate social change by extension.

Dying in Full Detail’s severest, yet warranted, criticism appears in the book’s third chapter, “A Negative Pleasure: Suicide’s Digital Sublimity.” This chapter analyzes The Bridge (Eric Steel, 2006), a film that documents people ending their lives by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge into the bay below. The crew for this digital documentary continuously shot footage of the bridge for one year with the intention of documenting suicides, a project that the filmmaker described as awareness-raising and preventative. The Bridge motivates Malkowski to name a digital-era “expectant gaze,” wherein the filmmaker seeks out locations where death is likely to be seen, and then, exploiting the inexpensive and uninterrupted nature of digital cinematography, expectantly films until a death occurs. Malkowski delivers a convincing indictment of thise film’s doubly unethical approach, as it implicates its viewer in the on-screen search for suicides, and it deliberately aims for a “sublime” suicide aesthetic. The author again ties The Bridge into the conventions of narrative cinema’s visualizations of death, asserting that it goes as far as to forge a protagonist out of one of the unconsenting subjects whose death it documented. Malkowski’s theory of the expectant gaze, as exemplified by The Bridge, reveals the ethical corruptibility of digital technology’s durational and budgetary affordances.

In assessing the contemporary landscape of death on film, Dying in Full Detail’s fourth chapter, “Streaming Death: The Politics of Dying on YouTube,” traverses the online spaces that circulate the twenty-first century’s influx of death images. Ethical considerations are especially subordinate in online depictions, where Internet users are free to upload or observe documentary death footage anonymously. In this chapter, Malkowski contributes the essential term “ubiquitous gaze,” which refers to the likelihood that deaths in public spaces will be filmed due to the pervasiveness of cell phone cameras. Such an ubiquitous gaze led to socially conscious cell phone filming of two notable deaths in 2009: that of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police during an arrest in Oakland, and that of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian woman who was shot by a government militiaman at a protest against the contested results of Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

Non-professionals used cell phone cameras to film these politicized deaths from multiple angles and distances, in the process documenting institutionalized, racialized police brutality, and the aggressive suppression of a pro-democracy political demonstrator. However, Malkowski articulates a criticism of the public’s online reception of these evidential images, as such images were commonly understood through conceptions of death conditioned by Hollywood cinema. This is to say, factors such as the dying subject’s physical appearance, formal considerations such as close-ups and camera angles, and the filmer’s ability to visibly frame the death all factor into how the politics of a death might be communicated. For example, Malkowski outlines how Grant’s face was obscured from those who could film his death primarily in long shots, and that this positioning contributed to why footage of his unjust killing garnered only with momentary, local demands for police reform. Agha-Soltan’s graphic death, meanwhile, was filmed in intimate close-up and was mourned worldwide. Social media users dwelt on the tragedy of Agha-Soltan’s violent death, but this online outcry emphasized her femininity and beauty more than the politics surrounding her death. Viewing numbers on streaming platforms indicate that these death documentaries had an extensive reach, but Malkowski’s research reveals that this type of footage is also decontextualized on those streaming platforms, which range from YouTube to exploitative gore and death porn websites.

Even if Malkowski’s analysis arrives at conclusions that problematize digital documentary representations of death, it demonstrates the complexity of our presently mediated relationship with death. Dying in Full Detail argues that film is entangled in cultural conceptions of death, constructing a communicative interchange between actual death, documentary footage of death, and narrative cinema’s representations of death. Unfortunately, this loop forecloses the political and social redemption that Malkowski hopes for, which is a serious consequence of film’s diverse historical relation with representing death. Malkowski concludes that documentary death’s political potential hinges upon the footage’s aesthetic presentation. Even when politicized deaths are caught on film, their social use is contingent upon the extent to which they evoke conventional narrative representations of death.

Jennifer Malkowski’s Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary provides a necessary analytical framework for assessing the state of digital documentary death images in contemporary visual culture. Despite its best efforts, Malkowski’s work does not uncover evidence of a widely active ethics present in filming or receiving images of death. Nonetheless, the book’s defining the “gazes” at work in the digital era remains an essential contribution for interrogating the unethical angles of filming and viewing digital death images.