In Remembrance of George Steven Lopez Mercado (1990-2009)
I learned about the brutal murder of the Puerto Rican George Steven Lopez Mercado from an email from filmmaker Carmen Oquendo-Villar. I first met Carmen at ‘The New Everyday’ participatory unconference in New York and then Carmen and I became friends on Facebook and have exchanged two or three emails since. Her first email about Mercado shared only a very few details of the crime: “Last week in Puerto Rico, Jorge Steven López Mercado was decapitated, dismembered and burned by a john who got mad because Jorge was not a ‘real woman’.” But the short email clearly showed Carmen’s affection for the story. I then joined the Mercado Facebook page, started to look for more information about him, followed the related Facebook posts about the memorial in New York, and have read more emails of Carmen about the up-dates. Although I have never been in Puerto Rico, I started to get to know Steven virtually and decided to write a short essay in remembrance of him.
What does this description of my learning process tell us about remembrance, visual culture, and new media? Is it too idiosyncratic to lead to any conclusions? Does it tell anything beyond the obvious?
Well, I learned about Steven via a personalized narrative, by which I mean an introduction to the story by a friend or an acquaintance. Of the many shocking personal and social tragedies around the world, this one caught my attention because it caught Carmen’s attention. And then I decided to join the Facebook group to show my solidarity and commemorate Steven, sent invitations to others and shared a few pieces of information about him via Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds.
This was not only my story of learning and remembering: many others started to show their solidarity and commemorate him by sharing information online. Before engaging in the same type of commemorative practices, however, we connected to the story through different routes. Some people heard of the murder from the mass media and joined the Facebook group later. For them, the news came from traditional media sources, but their commemorative practices were often in the realm of new media. Others, like me, learned about the story from personalized narratives, but remembered Steven in online public spheres. And many heard of the news on social networking sites and online news services and started to commemorate Steven within the same spheres.
Two things strike me as particularly noteworthy in this story of news production and commemoration.
1. Personalized narrative as introduction to further narratives
First, it shows how introductory personalized narratives can help us when we have to choose from many competing stories. You can (and want to) provide your attention only to a very small number of stories and friends can help decide which those will be. Friends’ personalized narratives work as leads to the news items and navigate you in the jungle of news narratives.
The personalized narrative is often shared directly on the social networking site. But in other cases – such as in my case with Carmen – it comes from an email, a phone call or an in-person conversation. It serves as a tour guide, a new type of lead to the other narrative construction called ‘news.’[fn] As Bird and Dardenne noted about the interrelations between news and narratives, “It is important to begin looking more critically at the narrative qualities of news. While news is not fiction, it is a story about reality, not reality itself. Yet because of its privileged status as reality and truth, the seductive powers of its narratives are particularly significant.” Elizabeth Bird and Robert W. Dardenne, "Myth, Chronicle, and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News," in James Carey, ed., Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press (Beverly Hills: Sage 1988) [/fn]According to Michael Schudson, “A news story is both news and a story. Because it is a story, readers can expect it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and to operate by some standard conventions of narrative prose.”[fn] Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News, [New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003], 177[/fn]
But in journalism not only textual news items are deeply connected to narratives, but photographs also.
Some photographers would like to tell a story by the photograph. Writing about Margaret Bourke-White’s “The Flood Leaves Its Victims On The Bread Line” photo John Tagg notes that “What is distinctive about Bourke-White’s photograph is not that it inscribes an act of seeing, but that it constructs a legible message, a pictorial summation from which the arbitrariness of chance and the excess of particularity that afflict photography are strangely drained. The viewpoint is a function of composition, and the composition is painstaking and precise.”[fn] John Tagg, “Melancholy Realism: Walker Evans’s Resistance to Meaning,” Narrative 11, no.1 [January 2003]: 13[/fn] Bourke-White used composition to express a certain narrative.
Viewers also use their imagination to interpret a photograph. When in 1895 McClure’s Magazine published a newly discovered daguerreotype reproduction of President Lincoln, the readers constructed various creative narratives for it. For instance Brooklyn newspaper editor Murat Halstead gave a rather poetic interpretation: “This was the young men with whom the phantoms of romance dallied, the young man who recited poems and was fanciful and speculative, and in love and despair, but upon whose brow there already gleamed the illumination of intellect, the inspiration of patriotism.”[fn] Cara A. Finnegan, “Recognizing Lincoln: Image Vernaculars in Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8, no. 1 [Spring 2005]: 31[/fn] Halstead projected his general knowledge and imagination of Lincoln into this particular image and found all his ideas and dreams represented in it.
Newspaper photos are also often surrounded by texts. The text presents a narrative about the context of the photograph or invents a new context for it. Texts can also help recycle images by adding new interpretation to the same image. As Susan Sontag wrote about the image’s dependence on these contextual explanations: “its meaning – and the viewer’s response – depend on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words.”[fn] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others [New York: Picador, 2003], 29<[/fn]
And finally, people often would like to tell a story by means of a picture. As Rosalind C. Morris noted in connection with the Abu Ghraib images, if we recall the shock of the first sighting of the photos “what offended us was less the torture than the apparent enjoyment expressed in the faces of those who were its perpetrators.”[fn] Rosalind C. Morris, “The War Drive: Image Files Corrupted,” Socialtext 25, no. 291 [Summer 2007]: 103[/fn] The torturers enjoyed their narratives. Another example is Eliott Erwitt’s photos of the ‘Kitchen debate’ between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikota Krushchev. The images were meant to represent the economic differences between the two countries. And Nixon used the photos for a slightly different narrative later in his presidential campaign.
In Steven’s case, Carmen’s personalized narrative led me to the Facebook memorial, which is a Facebook fan page. I saw the first image of Steven on the front page and then many typical Facebook images of him and his everyday life in the ‘Photos’ section. The page provides the visitors not only with images, but also with a little bit of textual interpretation about the details of the crime and the social, cultural and legal relevance of the case. It is a fan page, which looks like a personal profile - just as all fan pages on Facebook - and conveys the message that those who join the group become somehow Steven’s fans and friends at the same time. And as Steven’s fans and friends, we are entitled to glance at all those ephemeral, hopeful and happy images of his life. The page gives subjective context to the mass media coverage of the story and brings Steven close to the viewer.
Out of the four types of narratives I explained in connection with press photographs, two are relevant for the Mercado Facebook page: texts helped contextualize the story and the photographs (just like traditional newspaper texts) and the viewers can imagine narratives to the images (just like in the case of the Lincoln daguerreotype). The perception of the images was also very much shaped by the social context of Facebook, especially by the social networking site’s culture of presenting banal images of our everyday lives. But beyond the traditional narratives related to news photographs, this Facebook group has also become home for many textual and visual commentary. People have commented on the Wall of the Facebook profile, in a few cases they also commented on images and they posted three images as commentary under ‘Fan Photos.’ On these images fans’ bodies serve as sites of social memory: they imitate Steven’s gestures. One response image sends a textual message projected onto the image: “Stop Hate Crimes.” These commentaries provide the images with new types of narratives extending the already long list of narratives related to news photographs.
But there was also more to the encounter with Steven’s images, than simply the production and compilation of various narratives. The Mercado - images somehow ‘spoke’ to us. They provoked feelings, emotions which are hard to describe only by words or by narrative structures. The typology of narratives I gave suggests that images gain power by our words and by our narrative constructions based also on words. This dependence on language seems particularly relevant for journalistic imagery; according to Barbie Zelizer “From their earliest uses, images have been looked at as the fluff of news, material that is secondary and adjunct to the words at their side.”[fn] Barbie Zelizer, “Death in Wartime: Photographs and the ‘Other War’ in Afghanistan,” The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 10, no. 3 , 27 [/fn]Some theories, however, claim that images can escape our language-based interpretations and possess a unique presence. For instance Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht differentiates between the “meaning effects” and the “presence effects” of images and advocates for a new focus on exploring our immediate encounters with pictures.[fn] Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004], 1-20[/fn] Steven’s images have certainly found their ways directly to many hearts. They spoke – and not always in words and narratives.
In sum, my meeting with the Mercado story started with a personalized narrative as lead. With the personalized narrative by my side, I entered a diffuse space filled with narratives and non-narrative experiences of commemoration.
2. Sharing as a commemorative act
The Mercado story shows the presence and power of what I call ‘remembering through sharing’ in contemporary new media cultures. Much has been written on the ways in which societies remember. Well-known sites of memory include monuments, poems, songs, but even such unique sites found their ways to the theory of cultural memory as paintings, photographs, dress codes and embodied sites of memory like handshakes and imitations of gestures. These traditional acts of commemoration are still relevant in contemporary societies.
But we can observe a few new cultural practices as well. In the case of George Steven Lopez Mercado, people expressed their compassion with him by sharing information about the murder on social networking sites. They shared related news articles and information about the Mercado Facebook page, they tweeted and posted status updates, commented on the fan page. In many cases they also called for action in their online commentary. But even without added commentary, sharing the information about the case, the Mercado Facebook page or about other related news items already served as acts of solidarity and remembrance.
Sharing information online about a case like this is a quick and powerful way to express solidarity. It is quick, because it does not require more than a few seconds from you. It is powerful, because the low barriers of distribution enable you to broadcast the news to many at the same time. It is important to note, however, that in most of the cases you broadcast to a certain group of people, to your fellow ‘friends’ and ‘followers,’ but not to ‘all.’
Moreover, sharing information online as an act of remembrance is often ephemeral. Communities need rites to remember something for a long time. As Paul Connerton emphasizes in How Societies Remember: “all rites are repetitive, and repetition implies continuity with the past.”[fn] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], 45[/fn] Users of social networking sites share information about many tragic events; in this sense their practices are repetitive. They might also decide to remember an event from year to year by repeated status updates, tweets and similar activities. But in most of the cases, their early and passionate acts of solidarity simply fade away.
Just consider the recent Facebook group about Ophélie Bretnacher, a French student, who went to the Hungarian capital to study with a European Union scholarship and disappeared after a late night party in December 2008. Her body was found two months later in the Danube with no signs of foul play. The police decided to rule the story as suicide. During the two months of search the mass and new media in Hungary and all around Europe followed closely the case. The related Facebook solidarity group had almost thirty thousand members. After the body has been found, however, media outlets have started to abandon the story, even though the victim’s parents have never agreed with the suicide explanation. Following the trend of mass media, the Facebook page has also started to have less and less comments. Now the activity of the group is mostly related to communicational and professional conflicts between the Hungarian and the French police. Ophélie Bretnacher, who used to be in the middle of attention all around Europe, became one victim among the many victims of unsolved tragic mysteries. Her day of disappearance is not repetitively remembered among the many thousand members of the Facebook group, her lovely personality is no longer widely commemorated. Nonetheless, there are members who do post comments on the page and organize protests. And these members might be able to trigger a wide-ranging and long-term remembrance by effective campaigns. But chances are high that they will not start such a movement, or even if they start, might not succeed in the fight for attention.
Online commemoration seems a little bit like ‘news:’ central to us for a short time, but forgettable on a long run. Just like traditional news, sharing the information on social networking sites is very effective in triggering social solidarity. And personalized narratives along with personalized visual and textual memorial sites contribute to this triggering effect.
But sharing information online is often very ineffective as a long-term act of commemoration. Online remembrance is a mixture of news production, news dissemination and commemoration. With one hit on the ‘share’ button we spread the dense narrative construction called news, express solidarity and commemorate. But we often do not ever repeat this action again in connection with the same event.
The news-like characteristics of online commemoration have very practical implications. To raise the question in particular:
What will be our yearly online rite to commemorate George Steven Lopez Mercado?
Who will start those ritualistic performances?
And who will persist on sustaining them?[fn] I would like to thank the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture for supporting my work this year with the Ernő Kállai Art History Grant and to Ri Pierce-Grove for her comments on this essay.[/fn]