The tattered teddy bear

by Rob Horning

19 September 2005


Perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on the tattered teddy bear photo from disaster sites. I can remember seeing several different tattered teddy bears in the photos from New Orleans, culminating in the moldy stuffed animal on the cover of the Sunday New York Times. The image has become a visual cliche, a lazy way of pointing out the harm done to children in their innocence—that is, children fortunate enough to already have begun their life’s work of collecting objects made precious by personal emotional investments. While it seems to be a way of eliciting sympathy for children, it’s more a way of normalizing the child’s (and our own) love for property. It dramatizes and eulogizes the destruction of property whie masquerading as a memorial for shatteered innocence. The image highlights the emotional content that’s presumably been transferred to the stuffed animal, reinforcing the normality of having deep emotional attachments to commodities, while shielding us from the real tragedy of human loss of life. The tattered teddy bear is in some ways a substitute for photos of dead children, a visceral tragedy that we both couldn’t bear to see and wouldn’t be able to take our eyes away from.

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