Panel 10: Media and End of Life Care

Tuesday 6th September 2016

By Zoë Shacklock and Gaby Smith

  • Paul Sutton (University of Roehampton):
  • Helen Wheatley (University of Warwick): Signs of Care: Television Documentaries About Assisted Suicide and the Persistence of Television
  • Agnese Sile (University of Aberdeen): The Ethics of Care in Briony Campbell’s Photographic Essay The Dad Project

Takeaway points:

  • Importance of storytelling as a form of care – giving voice to others (particularly the dying)
  • Rhythms of life and dying can be mirrored and supported by mediated structures and forms
  • Listening to these narratives and participating in these mediated rhythms can be/encourage practices of self-care

There was not a dry eye in the house as Paul Sutton discussed his experience of caring for his wife, Antonella, after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. Watching television together became a key part of his caregiving practice, both as a couple and individually. In particular, watching television created a shared space and a shared time, in which Paul and Antonella could share the ‘small pleasures’ of television. Paul and Antonella watched Frasier together, and the affective experience of re-viewing familiar, beloved serial programmes – waiting, intimacy, repetition, and memory – mirrored the patterns of palliative care. Paul concluded by discussing how he used television as self-care after Antonella’s death, returning to the rhythms of serial drama (in this case Battlestar Galactica) as a means of support through the grieving process.

In another highly moving paper, Helen Wheatley discussed the proliferation of television documentaries about assisted suicide in the last ten years. She suggested that the caring relationship in this documentaries transcended the people depicted in the programme – producers care for their subjects, practice self-care for themselves, and must also care for their audience. Wheatley highlighted particular moments in these programmes that work as gestures of care – the taking of consent, giving a voice to the dying, and the intimate image. Echoing Sutton’s discussion of self-care, Wheatley explains how the production teams behind these documentaries had to actively practice self-care themselves, attesting to the emotional toll of telling these stories. She concluded by arguing for television’s ongoing relevance as a medium of care in a post-broadcast era: television creates a space for working through social, moral and emotional issues surrounding death and dying, and so displays an attitude for care towards its audience.

Furthering the discussion of how a medium can embody practices of care, Agnese Sile talked to us about London-based photographer Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project, which documents her father’s final six months. She suggested that the photograph opens up a space for reflection and discussion about our understandings of illness, dying, and care. Drawing from Arthur Frank’s work, she argued that facilitating the telling and listening of stories is in itself a practice of care. Yet the relationship between narratives of death and endings is paradoxical – there seems to be an imminent, precise end, yet the stories always resist closure and continue to reverberate. This relationship is perfectly captured in the form of photography, which similarly plays with death and life, stillness and motion.

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