Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.21: Seeing the dead

When should we see the dead?

In this photograph of a Libyan rebel surveying a possible massacre site we are confronted with an unusually graphic portrayal of war dead. (This picture ran in The Guardian print edition on 29 August (pp. 14-15), appeared online, along with a similar image from the same photographer that can be seen in a New York Times gallery here). The charred remains of people whose identities are unknown embody the violence of a regime entering its last days and seemingly bent on revenge.

Coverage of the Libyan conflict by the mainstream press has, like the coverage of most recent wars, been relatively sanitised when we consider the number of graphic pictures in relation to the scale and intensity of the fighting that has left thousands dead. If you scroll through any of the recent photographic galleries from the conflict (see the New York Times presentation of “The Battle for Libya” for example), pictures of the dead are a minority of those on display. And when the subject is broached, its often done at a safe distance (as here), via partial or camouflaged disclosure (as here) or through traces like the blood-stained uniform (as here).

The reasons for this relative sanitisation of war are many and varied. In cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is connected to the formal restraints of embedding. Allied forces put considerable effort into avoiding the production and publication of photos showing both military casualties and civilian deaths. In the case of Libya, where the nature of the conflict is different, we might expect to see more given that “foreign bodies” are sometimes easily shown.

The fact that we still don’t see much demonstrates how the mainstream media operates within an economy of “taste and decency” that regulates the pictorial representation of death and atrocity. Although conventional wisdom often portrays the media as ‘blood thirsty’, in his book Body Horror, John Taylor offers an assessment that is still valid:

Displays of the horror and hurt of bodies are a measure of the industry’s mix of prurience and rectitude. The press errs on the side of caution in depicting death and destruction. It is careful to write more detail than it dares to show and often uses the metonymic power of photographs to remove harm from flesh to objects. When the press decides to picture bodies, the imagery tends (with notable exceptions) to be restrained. Newspapers do not revolt audiences for the sake of it. On the contrary, disgust forms a small part of the stock-in-trade and papers use it sparingly (1998, 193).

Should we see more of the consequences of war? Overall, I think so. Obviously the amount and presentation has to be carefully handled in order to avoid gratuitous displays. Anything that could attract the mis-used descriptor of ‘porn’ has to be avoided. But images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

An example of the latter was the Daily Mail’s recent focus on the death of an aerial stuntman. Without both still images and video (which I refuse to watch) that story would not have been globally reported. Contrast that focus on a falling man to the US media’s avoidance of the Twin Towers jumpers on 11 September 2001. Richard Drew’s now famous photograph appeared only once in the New York Times despite the fact some 200 individuals decided to leap from the World Trade Centre rather than face death in the buildings. Their painful choice was part of that horrendous day and Drew’s photo, calling attention to an important dimension of the event, deserved to be seen more.

Equally, Sergey Ponomarev’s powerful picture from Libya demands more attention. Without it the numerous words detailing unwarranted killings can wash over us, while the television images rush by us. Making us pause and think is an important part of photography’s function, even if the event it points to is hard to stomach.

Featured photo: A rebel inspects at least 50 burned bodies, said to be civilians killed by pro-Gaddafi soldiers, inside a warehouse in Tripoli. Copyright Sergey Ponomarev/AP

For a more detailed analysis of this issue, see my article “Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research, 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Categories
Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

POSTS

ARTICLES

Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
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?

SOME HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

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.

THREATS TO EMPATHY

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.

ALL THAT ‘PORN’ SIGNIFIES

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.

THE ISSUES THAT REMAIN

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.

References:

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