Though I wasn’t able to actually see the programme, Channel 4 have yet again courted controversy here in the UK by broadcasting a documentary about the death of Diana in the Pont d’Alma tunnel, Paris, despite pleas from her two sons, William and Harry, not to do so. What concerned them was the decision to include images of the crash that showed a doctor fighting to save the life of their mother. Such an image they found disrespectful and undermined their desire to protect their mother’s dignity in her last moments.
The Princes’ anger found support from politicians, journalists, commentators and public alike. Arguments ranged form the inappropriateness of such images, to questions about what this said about us as a nation – have we simply become voyeurs, titillated by such graphic invasions of privacy?
Counter to these arguments, people pointed to the assassination of JFK, images most of us have seen, and far more graphic than those shown of Diana’s death. And what of ‘ordinary’ human life (death) strewn across our screens – the carnage in Iraq, the famines of Africa, the Boxing Day Tsunami – didn’t these people and their families deserve dignity in death and respect for those who mourned them?
Of course, part of the issue surrounding Diana’s death is the control of image. The memory people want is of the beautiful Diana, the fairly tale Princess, the caring worker for social justice, the fashion icon. Her suffering doesn’t fit that narrative.
My initial response was, so what. Let Channel 4 broadcast and be damned. I even intended to post a picture of Diana’s death myself. Until I found myself reflecting about my faith, that is. A faith that has at its center an image of suffering and death. One that perhaps has become so familiar to us that we don’t see the suffering anymore but a God who can cope. Or more selfishly, we see our redemption, rather than the immense suffering of a life in its last throws. Has the humanness of the cross been lost to us in our desire to seek salvation through it? Has it become just one more iconic image – a first-century paparazzi moment.
I think we need to balance our images of crucifixion with those of the pietá – the image of Mary cradling, not the Son of God, but her child. Her own flesh and blood. A mother not wanting others to see his suffering, but holding him close in a vain attempt to give him dignity in his final moments. For here, we are party to an important dimension of the story – that Jesus suffered in flesh and blood, as all human beings do. And that his family mourned his loss.
As I sat in front of Google image, looking at Diana’s crushed, bloodied and tortured face, I saw human suffering. I saw the final moments of a life that deserved privacy and dignity, not the gaze of millions of people who never set eyes on her in real life. I saw the pietá lived out once more – and so I clicked off.