by on Nov.07, 2012




Two times in the last week I’ve done something I’m ashamed of. I’ve never watched a snuff film but I have, in the last week, looked at the ‘snuff’ equivalent—two photographs of young teenaged girls whose sexual exploitation, recorded in these photographs, was linked to their deaths.

One photograph was of Amanda Todd; at the vulnerable age 12, she flashed her breasts to a persuasive pedophile in a chatroom. He hounded her thereafter with the picture- -circulating it at her school, posting it as his Facebook picture, recirculating it each time she switched schools. After vicious bullying, self-harm, and a suicide attempt, Todd succeeded in killing herself, but not before recording an online video suicide note in which she told, on note cards, in heartbreaking teenaged handwriting, the story of her exploitation, harassment and death. I came across knowledge of Amanda Todd through a squib at the New Yorker.

The other photograph was of Regina Walters.I came by knowledge of Walters’ death via the GQ article ‘The Truck-Stop Killer’ by Vanessa Veselka. Veselka sets out to tell the story of her own narrow and harrowing escape from a would-be murderer at age fifteen– a murderer she believes is the same serial killer who tortured, photographed, and murdered Walters.  A photo taken of Walters by her murderer comes up on a Google search.

But the issue of the visibility/invisibility of young girls (which both permits and is a form of violence against young girls, a pre-erasure) turns out to be the eventual theme of Veselka’s piece. Anyone can now see Walters’ anguished photo online, but, in Veselka’s  article, noone at the  various truckstops remembers ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ about the similar murders of her sister-victims. Statistics exist suggesting hundreds and hundreds of missing and vulnerable girls and women are out there any given minute, yet somehow these don’t ‘register’ in either  individuals’ memories or in records. They are permanently erased, disposed of, invisible. Veselka remembers, just before her own encounter with the murderer, the discovery of a teenage girl’s body in a truckstop dumpster;  she revisits the truckstop decades later only to find that noone on the scene remembers the murder or the string of murders in the area of which it was a part; she moreover learns that all records of this particular crime have been lost, burnt up, flooded, lost with crashing hardware.

What can be said about this galling imbalance between the invisibility of the vulnerable and marginalized  in our society and their exploitative visibility? That is, when visibility is one more avenue for exploitation, then how can we ever address the deadly invisibility of such members of society and their suffering? To not-know, not-see is to be complicit in the erasure of these people from the planet. Yet to see is to perpetuate the violence against them.

Veselka presents a third option:

The prisms of Regina Walters, Shana Holts, and Lisa Pennal refracted into a set of icons—one in the backseat of a car laughing as she leans on the headrest, one with the shorn red-gold hair and an expression of resilience, one slightly crazy and ready to fight—each casting her own light, each a hologram of girlhood.


Yet even these figurative holograms, based on photos of the girls before their disappearance, cannot be shorn of their violence- because of course it is their very girlhood which is their vulnerability, their ability to be erased. A ‘hologram’ is even more ephemeral than a photograph.  The killer is reported to have said of one such girl, “She’s one of the invisible people’.

In the end I conclude for myself that my own anguish, my own inability to resist looking at these ‘snuff’ images (snuff because they are linked to, oversaturated with an anachronistic death which bleeds through them from the future), my own participation in the girls’ exploitation which has to fight for place in my brain/heart with empathy for them, the two flipping back and forth in a violent reaction, a supersaturation, is fitting. It’s maybe even a kind of unsettled and never-settling justice, scales that can never balance but are always swinging. It transfers an infinitesimal share of the damage to me. For while I am looking at images of exploitation, I exploit. I am also damaged by them. I am damaged by this violence, the violence done to these girls and the damage I do to myself and them by looking. I am damaged, deformed, and changed by it. Damage is circuited through me. I am less secure in my distance. I am less secure in my separation, in my wholeness, in my safety. I am vulnerable to these images. I have to re-encounter a world made of vulnerability and a system which runs on pain. Which is the case. Violence is ambient and will find its home in bodies. It may enter through the eyes, or may stab or shoot its way in. I do not think the psychological violence of looking is comparable in degree to the physical violence these girls have endured but it moves on the same circuits. The damage done to Amanda Todd was first psychological, then became material. These circuits are still live and the damage is still moving, even after the deaths of these girls.

I think this links back to why I myself write sensational, often violent and spasming poetry, and why I value the kind of poetry and art and film that brings violence continually back into view. Violence is always moving, it’s in the system, it makes things happen, it makes the products we buy available to us for low low prices and in record time. It poisons our children and kills our brothers and sisters, especially children and brothers and sisters we would never have considered our children and our sisters, except that we are linked to them by the violence that sometimes erases them, sometimes poses them for the camera. We should have to look this violence in the face more often. We should have to take violence into our faces, via our eyes.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Rebecca Loudon

    I was grateful to read this as I was once one of the vulnerable homeless at 13 and terrified and terrorized inside and out of my family. I don’t give voice to it much but it has of course skewed my entire life. I suppose I became a writer to write of it which I am doing now through Henry Darger and his terrorization of The Vivian Girls in his books and his paintings. I see my own life flapping out like opened skin in his work. There is so much more I want to write but not here not now. Am I afraid to face it? Not anymore. I’m afraid of being looked at though like someone/something trapped.
    Rebecca Loudon

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Rebecca, thank you so much for this incredible comment. I felt uncertain about posting this because I do feel the power imbalance– the figure in the picture is trapped. Amanda Hall felt so trapped she killed herself; Regina Walters was literally trapped. The photos I talked about in an earlier post about juvenile prisoners in the post-Soviet prison system are also trapped, and also around the same age, and also in the circuit of violence. Even as one who has not had these experiences, that dynamic is very visable. But I also feel so moved and somehow flayed open myself by these images and testimonies and art, kind of like Barthes punctum on overdrive, and I can’t settle down into just one reaction. It seems like the ‘proper’ reaction is to be undone and wracked by a pain which, while it can’t be symmetrical, is at least attentive, presence, embodied and responsive.

  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    Sorry Amanda *Todd*

  4. Joe Bratcher

    I’d like to thank you for this incredibly important post. Seeing/ hearing/ experiencing these traumatic situations expands my imagination in ways that I wish it never need be expanded. Reading about the everydayness, the over saturation to the point of invisibility of these deaths, creates a space that is horrified, saddened, yet one that cannot look away. Most moving for me are your closing words which speak of your work (and surely the work of others) which throws a light on the unknown/ unseen horrors that are real. Evil surrounds us and emanates from us, and try as we might we can not, indeed must not, look away.

  5. Chris Chapman

    There’s a clip of Reena Virk’s body under the bridge where she was beaten to death by Kelly Ellard in Saanich that BCTV broadcast that night. Kelly Ellard is my cousin.

    I never met Kelly. My mom told me she’s a relation from Saskatchewan. But we’re all related in BC by its deathworld. No matter how ugly South Bend appears, it’s candy. I can blame everyday impoverishment for the vancouver violence that gets these girls. But abstraction isn’t real and there’s this shame.

  6. Ailbhe Darcy

    I read yours and Carina’s posts right before bed last night, Joyelle, and went to bed properly angry with you both! I did not want the image of Regina Walters, terrified, in my head. It made / makes me feel physically ill. It certainly interfered with sleep.

    The particular way Walters’ fingers curl in the photograph is, for me, horrifyingly similar to the way my three-month-old baby’s fingers curl when he is terrified and screams. (So far only about things that are trivial, of course – though he can’t know that’s all they are.) This is not a connection it’s comfortable to make. As well as bringing home the horror of the image (the abject terror), it makes me feel utterly helpless to protect my son: and not only from actual violence, but from all the horrifying things that force themselves into one’s consciousness in a connected world. Who does it help, our knowing these things??

    As you say: “I am also damaged by them. I am damaged by this violence, the violence done to these girls and the damage I do to myself and them by looking. I am damaged, deformed, and changed by it. “

  7. Joyelle McSweeney

    Ailbhe, I see your point, definitely. I didn’t put that photo up in my post for just that reason– my post is about discussing the shame of looking and possible ways of framing the looking– but I didn’t include either photo because I didn’t want to make that choice for the reader. On the other hand, Carina’s post seems to me to be about an immersion in images and so including that image mobilizes that immersion. That said, I am troubled and frightened by that picture and have scrolled past it quickly so that I don’t have to be confronted by it unawares. So I can see your point. I also don’t want to get so ‘used’ to the photo that I no longer encounter it. The encounter’s force is important to me. It seems like people have had a range of reactions to the post which is also important to me. I don’t consider this matter settled in my mind either. It’s a raw, mobile pain.