Death in the Digital Age

Jennifer Malkowski, assistant professor of film and media studies, begins her new book with a comment overheard on September 11, 2001, as bystanders watched—and some filmed—those who jumped to their deaths from the burning towers of the World Trade Center.

“Don’t take pictures o’ that. Whattsa matter with you?!?”

That, she says, echoes responses she has been fielding for the past 14 years—since she embarked on an ambitious project to explore one of documentary film’s most taboo topics: capturing the moment of death on film. Her book, titled Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary, is an expansive study of the role documenting death—in photos, in video and online—has played in 21st-century American visual culture.

 

 

“When I started this project,” Malkowski says, the most common reaction to the idea of capturing death on video was encased in a moment of shock—“‘We shouldn’t do that. We shouldn’t look at that with the cameras.’” That was in 2001.

Today, with the popularity of YouTube and the widespread use of high-quality cellphone cameras, people are bypassing journalism’s gatekeepers and uploading their own content. The footage is all over the Internet, in fact. “Now you can see death, as a subject, anytime you want,” Malkowski says. “And so digital media certainly has tremendous potential to change cultural attitudes about death.”

In exploring the relationships among technology, temporality and the ethical debates about capturing death on video, Malkowski acknowledges that many complicated questions have yet to be addressed. In the meantime, she argues, “Nothing’s going to stop this footage from being shot. It has tremendous political importance, too. So we have to actually buckle down and think about how, on a case-by case-basis, do we want to reconcile with it ethically.”

Malkowski cites the shot to the head that killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder recorded the shooting. The event was horrifying, but Zapruder’s 8mm home movie camera images are now a “fixture of collective memory about this assassination.”

Malkowski’s project began as an undergraduate honors thesis at Oberlin College, and the topic found completion as her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. Released in 2017, Dying in Full Detail is published by Duke University Press.

Although Malkowski focuses on the digital era and the rise of social media, she also examines the history of film and photography and previous attempts to capture “the moment” of death in a documentary mode. She analyzes what she calls “documentary death material, going back to the invention of photography in the mid-1800s.” She points to battlefield photographs from the Civil War, “which were a tremendously graphic and politically important archive of images from the 19th century,” and takes readers through the history of early cinema and into the rise of video, and with it the rise of natural death documentaries.

Pragmatically, she argues that despite new digital tools and technology, death “remains beyond representation.” Death and its metaphysical truths are elusive and cannot be captured in a documentary, she says.

Most recently, Malkowski has shifted her gaze to a different research topic: the study of video games and portrayals of race, gender and sexuality in both popular and indie games. Malkowski—whose research studies digital media; documentary; race, gender and sexuality in media; and death and dying—is co-editor of another new book, published in July by Indiana University Press, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games.