"Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death."
--Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

The video in question begins in a restaurant overlooking Patong Beach, probably one of the most photographed places in the world. The cameraman is an amateur. When the video starts, he has already begun to panic, although at this point in the footage it's unclear why. The camera is trained on the horizon. There are giant palm trees and table umbrellas in the foreground. A bed of blue water shimmers in the distance. The cameraman: "It's coming in. It's coming again." An off-screen voice: "It's coming again?" The cameraman: "Yeah. It's coming again!" His voice is high and strained. There is some yelling in another language, and then some general guttural screaming, and then the cameraman shouts, in English again, "Shit, shit, shit!" He begins to dart around the restaurant, and the camera's perspective jerks around a bit before falling on a pair of tourists just outside. There's water everywhere.

We see the tourists making their way up some concrete steps toward a wooden deck already submerged under rushing water. As someone reaches down to give the tourists a hand, the wooden deck they've been climbing toward gives way entirely. The water dramatically surges, forcefully knocking the couple back into a concrete corner and instantly subsuming them, then brutally pummeling them with uncountable metric tons of water as well as a section of metal railing, several wooden deck chairs, several poolside recliners, a patio table umbrella, a patio table, a piece of wood the size of a door, and several bulky, broken scraps of God knows what. With that, they're gone.

"To find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins."

--Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 76

I am not the kind of person who normally likes to dig up gross shit on the web, but I haven't been able to stop watching this video. The file is called "Patong-hotel.wmv" (that's how it was labeled on the blog where I found it), and it's two minutes and 15 seconds long. It begins in the restaurant (everyone's at the beach, the tables and chairs are empty) and ends in the restaurant (everyone's unaccounted for, the tables and chairs are floating like chunks of food in a bowl of curry). Those tourists get crushed to death--I'm assuming that's what happened to them--about 50 seconds in. The perspective swings back into the restaurant, where the water level is about neck-high. In addition to the chairs and tables there are bookshelves, potted plants, bottles, personal effects, plates of glass, and a reception desk crashing around. (If you pause the video right as the restaurant's reception desk heaves into view, you can clearly see, sitting in a desk compartment, a copy of Kitty Kelley's The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.) Under all the screaming--unseen people are constantly screaming--there is another sound: tinny, musical, atmospheric. I think it's the sound of silverware clinking against other pieces of silverware, and against dishes, cocktail glasses, windows, tile, and like surfaces. It sounds like millions of forks clanking faintly against millions of plates--like a restaurant in the full swing of dinner. It's horrible.

"What to do with such knowledge as photographs bring of faraway suffering? People are often unable to take in the sufferings of those close to them."

--Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 99

Although the "faraway suffering" Sontag is talking about here is war related and has nothing to do with natural disasters or death by drowning or tsunamis at all--Sontag undoubtedly would have had something to say about all the amateur tsunami footage, but she died in New York of unrelated causes two days after the tsunami struck--her point about our general impotence in the face of catastrophe is fitting. And the link between tsunami and war exists, at least metaphorically, in the public imagination: "A week after the walls of water invaded, bodies are still washing ashore," NBC correspondent Ann Curry said on Dateline on Sunday night. Anyway, a sudden natural catastrophe like last week's tsunami inspires easily a greater sense of human futility than a war, because a war is actionable and, to a degree, bound by rules. What are you supposed to do about an earthquake and a wave?

"In a modern life--a life in which there is a superfluity of things to which we are invited to pay attention--it seems normal to turn away from images that simply make us feel bad."

--Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 116

One thing you can do is give money, and over the weekend a group of people collecting money for the tsunami rescue efforts stood downtown on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pine Street. One of them held a sign that featured several gruesome photographs--a wreck of a beach, a woman covering her face with a cloth to avoid the stench of rotting flesh, stuff like that--and the words "We Need Your Love!" The people standing nearby were just waiting for the light to change. The woman holding the sign thrust it toward one of the men waiting for the light to change, as if to say, Look at these pictures. The man smiled and looked distractedly beyond her. A couple next to him, holding shopping bags, didn't turn around at all.

"Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown."

--Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 81

"Patong-hotel.wmv" is frightening to watch, more frightening than anything I've seen on TV. (None of the footage I've seen on TV depicts humans close up, and almost everything that does get shown is crashing, spectacular, and clean, and also dubbed over with that grand TV vocabulary: "There are so many stories of loss, told in so many languages, in this world-famous vacation paradise….") Like any terrific (or truly terrifying) work of art, "Patong-hotel.wmv" resists descriptive terms. It rises above language. And raises problems it can't solve. The moral response to the video is disgust, but the reflexive response is awe, and those are hard responses to reconcile. I don't know why I've watched it so many times, except that it is a flawless embodiment of the problem that energized so much of Sontag's writing. By swiftly conflating savagery and sheer beauty, it raises a question that can't really be answered: How can a depiction of horror be this beautiful?

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