February 23, 2020

‘Anonymous victim’ book covers

I’m in book cover process and have been a little surprised by quite how distraught I am at the suggestion of having the photo of a Darfuri women (the same would go for man or child) I have never met and will never know the name of, on my book cover. So I wanted to take a little break from editing to think about why.

A quick scan of Amazon shows that the practice – of using anonymous victims on book covers – is not uncommon. Darfur has more than its fair share of examples. Rwanda is also not immune. Nor the Balkans.

Publishers seem to believe (and I’m not ruling out the possibility they have the data to back this up) that book buyers in general will be attracted to this kind of imagery. I’m a book buyer. Why do the anonymous victim style covers have the exact opposite effect on me?

I think it’s something to do with respect and a sense of “there but for the grace of God” – I could have been born ethnically Fur in Darfur and be stranded in a displaced camp right now. How would I feel to have someone I didn’t know come and taken of photo of me at such a traumatic stage of my life and then, five years later, have that photo turn up in bookstores across America on a book I hadn’t read, written by someone I didn’t know? Exploited would, I think, be the feeling. That the particular person who took my photograph got my “permission” to do so seems besides the point – unless perhaps the person taking the photograph was in fact taking it specifically for the book and explained to me what it was all about and why they wanted my image on the front of it. But my hunch is that in most of the anonymous victim book cover genre, there has been no such consultation.

If we wouldn’t want this exploitation for ourselves, then why is there seemingly no compunction about it in relation to others? I fear it gets to a much deeper issue that I see as fundamental in why governments the world over repeatedly fail to stop the massacre of the citizens of foreign countries – an inability to value “others” the same way we value “us.”

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