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Doug Ford is deciding whether he wants to be the leader of Ontario’s Conservative Party.
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Murder, With a Side of Porn
Stop it with the sexy pictures of Luka Magnotta, please; it's not just in bad taste — it's immoral

Illustration: Tiffy Thompson

The Internet has finally become porous enough for us to see through, and possibly past one of the most immoral of media ploys to get us to read and watch.

Luka Rocco Magnotta, the man suspected of murdering a Chinese man in Montreal and mailing out parts of his body, is pretty. As a result, newspapers and TV shows are pelting us with the contents of his ample album of glamour shots. He was a model, he worked in porn, and even auditioned for a reality show. There’s plenty of material, much of it posted by Magnotta himself.

The evolution of the published criminal picture is good to keep in mind.

At first, if newspapers had anything, it was a mugshot. Even when taken of attractive people, these are not attractive images, and they serve to keep the visual conversation in the criminal register.

As photos got more popular, the media had more places to turn. Yearbook photos became almost universal, and since these were mostly posed the same way, their subjects all roughly the same age, the yearbook grab became another standard image, more friendly than the mugshot, but after a while, no less indicative that something had gone very wrong.

Related: McCullin Documentary: A Telling Look at Old, Fresh, Heart-Slicing Images

Then came the family snapshots. These gave editors considerably more leeway. Should they choose one that made the subject look nefarious? Maybe something in army fatigues, or in a gang-ish pose. Or should they go for something more jarring, maybe with an arm around a mother, or holding a puppy, or smiling on a beach. The latter strategy was used occasionally, but mostly, criminals and suspects were made to look nasty or loony, and victims were made to look innocent and happy.

It’s important to realize, though, that when it comes to choosing from snapshots, unless there’s only one or two to go on — and for the past three or four decades, that’s almost never been the case — how these people are portrayed is an editorial decision.

The options exploded as social media did. Now we get very specifically chosen shots, often selected from of hundreds available on Facebook or elsewhere, that editors hope will tell a story themselves. Sometimes they’re even related to the crime in question: a man posing with the very rifle he’s accused to shooting up a campus with, or beside the woman he’s killed. But when those aren’t available, there’s a lot more images that might imply nastiness, or at least weirdness, for an editor to make her point.

Just as with victims, the prettier suspects and criminals get bigger and more frequent pictures.

The pictures of Magnotta are the pictures of a suspected murderer. It’s been less than a week since the Conservative Party office received that foot, which we now know belonged to Concordia student Lin Jun, but already, you can sense the frenzy. The body parts thing was big enough; the fact that they were mailed to political offices made it bigger. But when you add Magnotta’s looks, the fact that he reportedly made some porn, seems to have had sex with men and women, and the fact that he may have had something romantically to do with Karla Homolka, the story goes through the roof.

We’ve seen it before. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka did bad things. But in the universe of bad things, these were not big stars. But just as Bonnie and Clyde were petty hoodlums who made it big because they were a photogenic couple, Paul and Karla’s notoriety rests at least as much on their hairdos, cheek bones and complexions as it does on their crimes. People couldn’t get enough of those pictures, could not, I think, get enough of the fact that these were attractive people, not criminal looking, pictures of the sort of people you might have looked twice at on the street, the sort you might have flirted with, and had sex with if given the opportunity. Some of this was retroactive terror — It could have been me instead of those poor French and Mahaffy girls — but some of it, and in light of Magnotta, I’d say a lot of it, was pure pornographic fascination. Because these weren’t just murders, they were sexual murders. So to imagine the murder, you have to imagine the sex, the bodies.

But because the media was what it was in the 1990s when we were gawping at Bernardo and Homolka, all we had were these pictures, maybe even some in bathing suits, and some video of them going to and from court rooms. And we only had the most respectful, yearbook photos of the victims. So we could look at Bernardo and Homolka and though we probably hated them, that prettiness, and possible sexual attraction, though few of us would have admitted it to ourselves or others, remained intact.

One of the reasons is that sexual attraction is largely a visual thing (more for we menfolk than the ladies, perhaps, but it’s a big part of it for all of us), and it can’t fully be counteracted by anything that’s not visual. We can hear all the stories there are, in as much detail as there is, about the horrible things people do. But if we like the cut of their jib, though we’re conflicted about it, our limbic brains remain attracted.

There was that video that Bernardo made, the one the parents of the victims were able to have destroyed after the trial was over, that showed at least part of the crimes in question. To my knowledge, even though videos did have a way of getting out back in those VHS days (I watched the Rob Lowe sex tape, for instance), it never leaked, and so possibly the only thing that might have blotted out any ogling, porny value those licentiously published photos of the couple didn’t, and we’re left with glamour’s afterglow.

Things have changed. And it makes what the shows and papers are doing even more transparently hateful. Because this video is out there. I’ve watched it, and maybe so have you.

It’s not clear if it’s Magnotta — whoever it is wears a hoodie and has his back to the camera — but everything else is on full view. The naked victim’s alive at the beginning of the video, as the hooded character sits on his chest, possibly stroking his face. Though he’s tied to the bed, it all looks consensual (unless the victim was drugged; we can weakly hope he was). Then there’s a jump in the video, and we see a half dozen little red marks on Lin’s torso. He’s not moving anymore. When the hood comes back into frame, we see where those marks came from. He’s holding an ice pick, which he then uses to puncture the body about a dozen more times. Then he takes the camera in one hand, a knife in the other and starts cutting. Small, tentative slices at first on the thighs and arms, just enough to make the body start to look like meat. Then we get a close-up on the victim’s face just above his slashed throat.

That’s when I stopped watching.

It turns out, I didn’t need to see the killer’s face. The association I made between the two visual stimuli was strong enough to make me see what I only intuited before. Sexualizing this murder by posting shots of the suspect raising his shirt to show off his tidy little body is disgusting. And not in a helpful way, like some images of war, disease and famine can be. Those are simply visually disgusting. The decision editors and producers and web publishers are making hourly to throw up these shots is morally disgusting. Moral’s not a word I use a lot. It’s muddy, and gets more caked with crud nearly every time it’s hauled out. But I think it works here. Using the parts of us that make us horny to up circulation, Nielsen and web-hit numbers on a story like this, one that almost certainly involves a man who used that same strategy to get his victim into his room, naked and tied up, is unjustifiable.

Please stop. 

________

Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @bertarcher.

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