Does seeing photographs of suffering deaden our consciences?
Historical study provides the best, if often imperfect, means of understanding the past. Based nearly always (I’m excepting micro-histories here) on multiple sources – primary, secondary and historiographical – historical studies move towards an ever more refined and relevant understanding of what happened and why.
So why would we ever put the burden of showing ‘how things are/were’ on a single photograph?
It is the equivalent of single sourcing in history. You wouldn’t do it.
It is also why I cringe when I hear the phrase “iconic image” of such and such: The Vietnam War, Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It immediately raises questions such as iconic of what? To whom? In what way? It usually falls at the first hurdle. And yet this is a burden placed on images not by photographers themselves (usually) but by those seeking to understand complex realities through the simplest means – the headline rather than thousands of pages of often contradictory witness reports.
So where does the photograph fit in and, indeed, does it have a role at all in telling us ‘what was (or is) the case’?
Yes, I feel it does, and historical study is a useful guide as to how.
Photojournalism and news photographers are providers of primary source material. They offer one view, one perspective at a time.
On their own they might (or might not) tell us a great deal about an instant and the photographer’s relationship or perspective on that moment. A series of images from the same burst might tell us a good deal more about that moment and the photographer’s relationship with it.
And yet photojournalism of the most pressing and distressing events of our times is frequently rounded upon by photography’s best-known critical thinkers.
We have Susan Sontag attacking photography in general:
The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate - all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance and with some detachment.
When it comes to images of catastrophes - human or man-made - her issue with photography deepens further still. Photographers, she believes, provide images of suffering without providing explication of cause or context.
Then her apparent coup de grace:
The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings…In these last decades, concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”
Her claim here appears to have so permeated the thinking of post-modern critics of photography as to have, ironically, become an unquestioned truth.
And yet it makes little sense.
If viewing photographs of suffering deadens the ‘conscience’, it would surely stand to reason that the period before photography’s existence would have been one of deep social mindedness and a universal concern for the suffering of others?
We both know that was not the case.
I would argue, with Susie Linfield, from the opposite side: That photography has done more than any other means of communication to foster an internationalism of care.
I’m thinking of the Congo Free State under King Leopold II (1885 to 1908), in which photography brought home the extent of murder and mutilation taking place on an unfathomable scale. Or the images of the survivors, and the dead, from the Nazi concentration camps. Or the work of the many photographers of the Vietnam War. Or the scenes of famines in Ethiopia of 1983-5.
This is not to say images of atrocity are not often problematic. They are. They must be.
Numerous critics suggest photography of suffering are tantamount to pornography in its violation of the suffering (or dead) individual/s for the purposes of remote viewing.
This accusation too is problematic.
The sexual act is usually expected to be a private union of individuals. Should brutality or mass starvation also be private?
Surely the only people who benefit from keeping atrocity hidden are the perpetrators and the implicated?
Is not the suffering of a person - especially if its being systematically perpetrated - a social, and therefore, public concern?
Yes, images of brutality and suffering raise almost insurmountable ethical questions. And they fail to provide a coherent, deep and linear narrative that explains the ‘why’ of such events.
But, as Linfield says:
Photographs excel, more than other form of art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism… They - we - turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like.
Such imagery works, in short, at the emotional level. It informs and challenges our sensibilities.
And for all the post-moderns’ insistence on inter-textuality, it seems strange that photography is siloed for criticism. The idea of placing photographs within an information nexus seems alien to them, stranger still given that the most common formatting of photographs of suffering is alongside often lengthy written pieces seeking to explain (admittedly often incompletely) the ‘why’ of what we are seeing.
Understanding takes effort. Seeing the suffering of others is hard. But bringing intellectual and emotional faculties together remains as important an attribute of being a fully engaged human being as ever.