From the Archives

From the Archives – Where Images Fail: Newtown, Connecticut

In the wake of the latest mass shooting, we bring you Randall Miller’s 2012 article from the Daily Serving archives, written after another shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In the piece, the author explores the inability of images to accurately explain the tragedy and grief afflicted by mass shootings. The editors had decided to remove all images from the initial posting of this article, and we see fit to do the same now.


In one picture, a teenage girl holds a phone to her ear. Her free hand clutches her chest. She’s alone in a parking lot on a sunny day. The look on her face is one of immense terror and grief, as though she were screaming into the phone, not speaking. Her eyes are pressed tight and her mouth is open, exposing all her teeth. Her entire face looks wet.

In another image, a fresh-faced but grim firefighter dominates the left half of the picture. Behind him, more firefighters: not the burly action-hero types, but more like the small-town volunteers who also have day jobs. On the right, we see a couple, perhaps in their late 20s. The man has his arm around the woman. He wears a blue t-shirt and a thousand-yard stare. She is lost in a moment of intense emotion, her hand covering one eye as she cries. Everyone seems to be stunned, walking toward the camera with little sense of real purpose.

Several other pictures depict faces melting in a wash of sorrow and panic. Or adults clutching small children. Or bands of people clustered in a group embrace. Or concerned police standing around with little to do. Or people of all ages frantically running from right to left.

On Friday morning, a heavily armed 24-year-old man walked into a school in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 27 people, including 20 elementary-age children as well as himself. Reports of yet another mass killing–one more in a year that’s already brought shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a coffee shop in Seattle, Washington, and a sign-making company in Minneapolis, Minnesota–renewed America’s sense of collective grief as images and stories of the latest tragedy swept the national news and social media.

Unlike images of burning towers from 9/11 or naked human pyramids and laughing soldiers from Abu Ghraib prison, these shootings, devastating as they are, rarely leave behind indelible images that sear the national memory. Though the emotional impact of these types of images is acute in the immediate wake of a recent tragedy, they seem to have very little staying power. The fact that guns were turned on an outrageously high number of very young children is particularly horrifying and incomprehensible. Yet, in large part the images from Connecticut are virtually interchangeable with the images of grief from the year’s prior shootings (with the notable exception of the Sikh temple, which didn’t garner nearly the amount of attention and soul searching that shootings in white suburban areas often do).

Maybe that is because these things keep happening and we’ve seen it too many times for there to be any visual difference. Or maybe it is because the impact of these images is overwhelmed by the subsequent media spectacle surrounding the identities of the killers, who no one seems to understand even as every detail of their lives becomes a point of fascination. Perhaps it is because the reality of these types of stories is so painful that the country would rather banish these images from our minds until the next catastrophe forces us to look again and wonder “Why?” Perhaps it’s because so little has changed in public policy since April 20, 1999, when two gunmen went on a killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

As Susan Sontag wrote in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, the majority of us view these images at a distance and feel sympathy for the victims and families pictured. More so, “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing–may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget” (115). Yet these images can only provide us with so much. They tell us what evil looks like, but “To designate hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames” (Sontag 114).

The images of grief and terror from Newtown will not explain the tragedy for us. They cannot think or act in our place. They will not change gun laws to reflect the real needs of contemporary American society. They will not change the culture of violence and humiliation that inspires white men–and the killers are almost always white men–to murder their mothers, classmates, coworkers, and then everyone else within bullet range. And they certainly won’t tame the media spectacle that salivates over the deaths of people and turns mass murderers into outrageously famous individuals. As more shootings happen, they are hardly even capable of helping us remember. These images can show us a moment in hell, but other than that they are a failure. A failure, that is, unless they challenge us to actively find the answers, with honesty, conviction, and a true sense of urgency, to the questions they inspire us to ask.