photography politics

The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’

‘Development pornography’. ‘Poverty porn’. ‘Disaster porn’. ‘Ruin porn’. ‘War porn’. ‘Famine porn’. ‘Stereotype porn’. When it comes to the representation of atrocity and suffering, the charge of pornography abounds (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

What does it mean to use this term so frequently in relation to so many different situations? What are the conditions supposedly signified by ‘pornography’? Might this singular term obscure more than it reveals?

With last week’s the anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake I recalled a BBC Radio 4 segment that asked if the news photographs of the disaster were too graphic. John Humphrey’s introduced the segment as follows:

Disaster pornography. It’s a powerful and disturbing phrase, coined by Brendan Gormley, the man who runs the Disasters and Emergencies Committee, to describe what so often emerges after a terrible tragedy like Haiti. You know exactly what he means – the pictures of victims that show in shocking detail what’s happened to them, stripped of life and often stripped of dignity.

Humphrey’s was wrong on the origin of the term because it predates Gormley’s usage by a long way. In NGO circles it has been common for some time (see this example from Somalia 1993), and, as I shall argue below, it has a very long conceptual history.

But Humphrey’s statement – “You know exactly what he means” – is revealing. ‘Pornography’, he suggests, is a term that invokes a conventional wisdom, something we know without having to be told, something we can identify without even looking.

Like all concepts that seem natural it needs unpicking. To consider what the frequent use of ‘pornography’ to describe the representation of suffering involves I want to draw on the historian Carolyn Dean’s research to suggest its time we stopped speaking of ‘porn’ in relation to photographic portrayals.

Let me be clear on two points, though. The first is that there are representations or objects that can be analysed as pornographic, so dispensing with the concept in relation to picturing atrocity is not to argue it is inapplicable in all other circumstances. The second is that the problems and limitations in photography sometimes identified via the label of ‘pornography’ are serious and in need of remedy. The reliance on stereotypes, among many other problems, has to be addressed (see my earlier posts on famine icons here and here for how this argument can proceed). It’s just that labelling these concerns ‘pornography’ doesn’t get us far.

So why has ‘porn’ because a common term of critique, and what are its limitations?


From the eighteenth century onwards, during the Enlightenment, sympathy for others was deemed to be one of the characteristics of a modern, feeling individual. This was part of a general cultural change that gave rise to humanitarianism – compassion and a reluctance to inflict pain were marked as civilized values with cruelty deemed barbaric and savage.

With development reducing the daily experience of suffering, people were motivated to help others through representations that offered symbolic proximity to the victim. From the beginning, long before the technology of photography, there were cultural worries about perceived impediments to empathy, such as images and narratives that produced insufficient compassion or disingenuous sympathy.

The recent history of ‘pornography’ as a term for cultural anxiety demonstrates how it names many things but explains few. The modern concept of ‘pornographic’ emerged in the 1880s when, Dean argues, authorities in America and Europe sought to control literature that “provoked antisocial sexual sensations and acts in those deemed morally weak or unformed – women, children and working-class men.” They feared that the goal of a “normal,” healthy population would be undermined by the expression of inappropriate desires.

After World War One, in addition to sexually explicit material, the idea of ‘pornography’ migrated to representations of suffering that allegedly dehumanized and objectified their subjects, usually veterans. World War Two saw this usage intensify with, for example, James Agee (the writer who worked with Walker Evans on Let us Now Praise Famous Men) declaring that the newsreel footage from the battle at Iwo Jima was degrading to anyone who looked at it because it created an “incurable distance” between the subject and viewer.

From 1960 onwards this sense of ‘porn’ as a barrier to identification with victims was accelerated by discussions around the representation of the Holocaust, and Dean spends much of The Fragility of Empathy dealing with the numerous examples where the charge of ‘pornography’ dominates debate about which visual representations of the Nazi genocide were permissible.


In the evaluation of ourselves as human and civilised, ‘we’ have often expressed anxieties about our collective ability to feel compassion. What Dean calls “threats to empathic identification” have been repeatedly identified since the eighteenth century, and today ‘bad images’ are high on the suspect list. In this context our cultural anxieties are expressed via another of those oft-repeated slogans that pretend to offer an explanation – “compassion fatigue.” As Dean writes:

Assertions that we are numb and indifferent to suffering, that exposure to narratives and images of suffering has generated new and dramatic forms of emotional distance, however they are transmitted, are by now commonplace in both the United States and western Europe.

In photographic circles, this view is another conventional wisdom. For example, in his review of the 2010 Exposed exhibition at the Tate, Gerry Badger wrote that he found the show, despite its sections dealing with sexual voyeurism and violence, a little “tame”:

I don’t think this sense of tameness was simply a result of critic’s déja vu, but something more fundamental. I think it may also reflect Susan Sontag’s point, made in her book On Photography (1977) – an extremely prescient point in pre-internet days. Writing about the effect of increased exposure to pornographic or violent photographs, she remarked: “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetise.”

This brings us to a crucial issue. Sontag’s “road” has become a 12-lane superhighway. It’s the issue – perhaps largely unseen, but certainly not unspoken – that hangs over Exposed, just outside the galleries, like the seven-eighths of an iceberg that lies underwater – the ubiquity, and incredible proliferation of photographic images in our society thanks (if that is the right word) to the internet. Not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of the almost total lack of control regarding their content.

Badger’s statement expresses the anxieties perfectly – the proliferation of images, the lack of control over their content, and the inevitable dulling of our moral senses. No matter how neat the associations between images and action (or lack thereof), and no matter how often it is repeated, we can’t get away from the fact that this is just a claim unsupported by evidence. Indeed, I argue that that compassion fatigue is a myth.

Third Frame Conference: Professor David Campbell from OPEN-i (Open Photojournalism Edu on Vimeo.

There is, of course, much more work to be done detailing the evidence to support my position, but I made some preliminary remarks to this effect at the LCC’s “Third Image” symposium in December 2009, available in the recording above. However,  there is one indisputable counterpoint to Badger we can easily note: his de rigeur reference to the early Sontag overlooks the fact the argument was reversed in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), where she stated such claims about the failure of atrocity images had become a cliché. Sontag’s road, even as a superhighway, doesn’t go in the direction Badger and so many others describe.


I’ve noted above the complex history of ‘pornography’ and its varied use in different contexts. Dean calls ‘porn’ a promiscuous term, and when we consider the wide range of conditions it attaches itself to, this pun is more than justified. As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, ‘pornography’ has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.

Furthermore, this litany of possible conditions named by ‘pornography’ is replete with contradictory relations between the elements. Excesses mark some of the conditions while others involve shortages. Critics, Dean argues, are also confused about whether ‘pornography’ is the cause or effect of these conditions.

The upshot is that a term with a complex history, a licentious character and an uncertain mode of operation fails to offer an argument or a framework for understanding the work images do. It is at one and the same time too broad and too empty, applied to so much yet explaining so little. As a result, Dean concludes that ‘pornography’

functions primarily as an aesthetic or moral judgement that precludes an investigation of traumatic response and arguably diverts us from the more explicitly posed question: how to forge a critical use of empathy? (emphasis added)

I think this is correct. The repeated and indiscriminate use of ‘porn’ is a substitute for evidence in arguments about the alleged exhaustion of empathy. ‘Porn’ has become part of a fable that asserts we fail to recognise our ethical obligations towards others, and have become habituated to suffering because so many pictures have become threats to empathic identification.


Long on assertion and short on evidence, ‘pornography’ should be dispensed with as a term related to visual representations of suffering. However, that is not the same as arguing that all is right with conventional photographs of atrocity and disaster. Many of the problems ‘porn’ attached itself to must be dealt with in relation to specific images in specific contexts, and many of the previous posts here have attempted to do that. It is just that aggregating those concerns under one banner prevents us from engaging the problems properly.

We also need to ask some hard questions about what and where are the main threats to empathy. In the wake of two world wars and a century of genocide, our inability to stop the suffering of others has been painfully demonstrated. Our collective failure produces cultural anxieties, and they have been exacerbated by our post-WWII condition. Simultaneously we have developed a greater awareness of distant atrocities because of media technologies, and a human rights culture that details responsibilities with regard to people beyond our immediate borders. ‘Pornography’ and ‘compassion fatigue’ are alibis, slogans that substitute for answers to this gap between heightened awareness and limited response, which is limited at least in relation to the scale of the challenges.

Has there been a failure of empathy in recent times? I’m not sure. The size and vitality of the charity sector (see here), whatever the problems with NGOs (see here), might be evidence of on-going ethical commitments. Are photographs of suffering a threat to empathy? Some are, and some are not, but we need to know a lot more about how people actually respond to images before we can offer definitive conclusions. What if, rather than being emotionally exhausted, any lack of empathy comes from people deciding they just don’t want to know about atrocity regardless of the nature of the available pictures? There is much more thought to be undertaken around these issues, but one thing is clear – labelling everything ‘porn’ is not helping.


Carolyn J. Dean, “Empathy, Pornography, and Suffering,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14 (1) 2003, pp. 88-124

Carolyn J. Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004)

Karen Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” The American Historical Review 100 (2) 1995, pp. 303-334

Photo credit: Incognita Nom de Plume

18 replies on “The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’”

I appreciate your argument here, but would love to hear you engage with Sontag’s 2003 argument. It’s tremendously thoughtful, and supports but also disavows your argument. She asks whether war phootography turns people “anti-war” by virtue of stimulating empathy. She concludes that being anti-war in such instances is unethical; empathy is unethical. To get there she does argue that war photography is pornographic, insofar as “any image of an attractive body violated” (I’m quoting from memory here) is pornographic. But she goes further than merely dismissing this as fatiguing. She argues that photography is a technology of abstraction (she notes how rarely war image captions include proper names); like all mass reproductions of people as images, (as anonymous) it introduces a generic or exchangeable human/subject and a generic humanity for a particular person. It is dehumanizing (in the sense of abstracting) at the moment it stimulates a general emphathy. All wars viewed from a distance (which for many privileged consumers at least is the way we see war) are exchangeable; all suffering is exchangeable. To be ethical is to address the absolute particularity of all suffering, of every one.
She says more too: that photographs haunt (and thus repeat) rather than assimilate to consciousness.
So, yes, we keep secreting empathy, but only in so far as we maintain a distance, and perhaps a state of unthinking.
Have you read her thus? Does this accord with your sense of her argument?

Hi David,

I found your article so very helpful. I have recently come across the term ‘ecopornography’ in ecocritical thinking coming from relatively recent environmental/media theory area (EcoSee, 2009). As the term seemed both novel (though it had been first used in the 1970s) and apt I had initially thought it was very useful; I can now see that it is complex and problematic. However, it is arresting concept for many to even consider, particularly when we need to urgently move to extending a duty of care to all life forms so I will use it with care. thank you again for such an informative post.

[…] Mexiko, welches einer der tödlichsten Länder für Journalisten darstellt (hier), ist dabei nur ein Beispiel für die Kontroverse zwischen der Notwendigkeit von aktuellen Nachrichten, der Gefahr der Verherrlichung der Gewalt der Straße wie auch der Polizeiarbeit. Afghanistan wäre zum Beispiel auch zu nennen. David Campbell, Fotograf, Professor und Medienkritiker, hat dazu auf dem Blog No Caption (hier) einige lesenswerte Gedanken niedergeschrieben. Ein weiterer, kontrovers diskutierter, Artikel von Campbell über die „Fotografie des Leidens“ findet sich hier. […]

Thanks Jim. Working my way through Linfield at the moment and have mixed reactions to her arguments, but will need to digest and then write a full review. Most of her observations on ‘porn’ on those pages come directly or indirectly from Carolyn Dean. However, here idea that ‘orientalism’ is a term that functions to aggregate and perhaps silence like ‘pornography’ strikes me as very odd.


this is a useful post. Thanks, You might want to have a look at some intersecting reflections in Susie Linfield’s recent book The Cruel Radiance (U Chicago 2010) pages 40-42.

I hope allis well.


Joerg Colberg has some kind words about this post over at Conscientious, and, even better, he adds to the argument. Joerg wants to add one essential dimension that he thinks is missed above:

“what seems crucial is that pornography also and especially entails an act itself, namely the mindless, superficial, yet titillating visual consumption of imagery. That consumption might contain someone’s dignity being violated, or some desire being constructed; but at its core lies a corruption of the act of mindful viewing. Pornography is an invitation to shamelessly ogle…”

I am not sure that dimension is missed entirely, as I think the notions of desire and voyeurism I mentioned could cover what Joerg is point to, but I would have to give that more thought. The last phrase of his I have just quoted here does raise a question for me.

My concern is with ‘porn’ as a trope, as Sara says above, in domains other than direct sexual degradation. In this context – the representation of disaster and suffering for example – there is no thing called ‘pornography’ that invites us to ‘shamelessly ogle’. The trope of pornography is applied to certain circumstances through the practices of looking and reading. So I would see it as effect rather than cause, where there is a suggestion in Joerg’s phrasing that it is cause rather than effect. Or am I missing something? In any event, I think this accords with Yolagringo’s point that all terms such as this come about because of interpretation. And I very much agree with the idea that gap between exposure, empathy and action says more about notions of causality and responsibility than images per se.

Thanks to EdH for the comment too. Being concerned with how interpretations arise and are common, I think, contra EdH, that there is more than simple laziness involved, although tropes are shortcuts which can be used lazily.

I think the use of pornography associated with subjects outside of the original use of the word is laziness. Associating it with disaster, poverty, and other emotionally charged visual subjects should be label in a way which truly and accurately describes them.

I have to consider Eddie Adams image of the execution. It is an emotionally charged yet what we have seen arise out of the earth quake in Haiti or other events is no different. What has changed is what people are allowed to see via media outlets such and news casts. There is even less control of what people see via the internet. You don’t have the censorship of images of acts of violence, death, or other visceral content that we have had in the past hundred years.

I think there are better ways to name photography works. Those who use the word porn are invoking a convoluted emotions and steering the thoughts of the recipient instead of the image(s)

A thoughtful analysis. One thought I have is that we cannot control the reaction people have to images, not completely anyway. We can certainly provide context and narrate empathy, sympathy, and direct ideas of action, but the image can become pornographic as interpreted or used by the audience. A series of photographs detailing the horrors of war can be valuable when contrasted with the media’s limited or biased representation, but those same images can then be distributed on a forum, website, etc. mocking the suffering or taking enjoyment in the suffering of others. I believe, in that sense, it is pornographic in its use; however, this use does not define the work itself.

I think the gap between exposure, empathy, and action has less to do with the availability of images and more to do with prevailing cultural beliefs of responsibility and cause and effect.

thank you David! really helpful. I admit I’ve used the porn trope before, and won’t again. I continue to be fascinated by how solidarity groups use photography to inspire not just empathy but action, and think that focusing on what DOES seem to work might be a way for thinking about what does not. (one of the projects I’ve been involved in is at


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