The lure of the lost ones

By Mark Lawson (THE GUARDIAN, 01/09/06):

In a world of media urgency, most photos that appear in newspapers have been taken at most 24 hours before. The exception is the young who die or disappear and so flash identical smiles for days, then years and even decades. Images of three of these lost children have been beamed around the world in the past week: JonBenet Ramsey, murdered in 1996; Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped in Austria in 1998; and Liam Hogan, killed last month when his father jumped with him from a hotel balcony in Crete. If newspapers had a soundtrack, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder would be playing behind these pages.

This rush of feeling towards portraits of the lost young comes from the perception that there are few greater pains than for a parent to outlive their child, and is further encouraged by the media convention of stressing that the death toll in a military attack or air crash "includes many children".

Bizarrely, there is often an effort to further infantilise these near-infants. Press reports changed James Bulger's name to Jamie, presumably because it sounded cuddlier and more vulnerable than what his family actually called him, while there are newspapers and newsreaders who routinely tag murdered juveniles "little Mary" or "little Stephen".

But two of the pictures in the media gallery of young tragedy have recently been unexpectedly reframed. JonBenet Ramsey seemed for some days to have achieved posthumous justice with the arrest of a suspect for her murder. And, even more improbably applying the twists of a television thriller to reality, Natascha Kampusch - widely assumed after eight years missing to be an Austrian James Bulger - was discovered alive.

Both of these cases force us to think hard about about our relationships with these iconic lost children. JonBenet, for example, was always distinct from the other representations. While most of the frozen photos are chosen because they encapsulate innocent potential, the frequently reproduced images of JonBenet as a child beauty queen were chosen because they seemed to suggest an inappropriate knowingness which, while not the fault of the child, might hold some clues to the fatal situation in which she had found herself with an adult.

But John Mark Karr's false confession to her murder is a consequence of the circus of vicarious global grief. The pictures of famous dead children printed in the papers are an invitation to readers to project their emotions on to this unknown. In most cases the projections are harmless: fears about our own offspring or horror at the world's condition. Karr, though, seems to have been provoked by the photos into imagining that he was present when she died. His sick intervention is an admittedly extreme - but still generally telling - demonstration of the way in which the public now try to make private tragedies their own.

The remarkable letter written by Natascha Kampusch after her release - to the "journalists, reporters, and people of the world" - also rebukes this instinct to intrude. The key phrase in the statement is this: "Message to the media: the one thing I would appeal for from the press is a stop to the insulting reports, the misinterpretations of reality, the commentaries that claim to know better and the lack of respect for me."

Fate has made her the first of the lost children ever to be able to make this plea, but her sentiments might be echoed by the shades of James Bulger, JonBenet Ramsey and others. The family of Liam Hogan, forced by the apparent tolerance of the Cretan authorities for cameras in hospitals and courts to live out an appalling tragedy on 24-hour news channels, might also add their names.

The media are not solely to blame: while lurid reporting encouraged Karr's fantasy confession, the credulity of prosecutors was also at fault, and the now-common sight of crowds laying flowers at crime scenes shows that intrusive grief can be led by the public. There is also a natural curiosity to know about the circumstances in which Kampusch was held and other children died; such speculation drives the billion-dollar market in crime and thriller fiction.

Even so, Kampusch's warning - saying she is "prepared to take steps to ensure this interest does not get out of control" - is timely. She is not our child; none of them are our children. Perhaps revealingly, she has so far prevented the release of a new photograph, leaving the media reliant on a computer simulation. She has chosen to remain frozen as a child in the press, like the dead.

There is an irony in her determination to refuse us a picture and keep us away. Fear of paedophilia has made a taboo of approaching strangers' kids in the street or keeping pictures of them. The Ramsey and Kampusch cases in particular ask us to reflect on whether obsessive interest in other people's dead or missing children is also a kind of violation.