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photography politics

Photojournalism and change: voices of humility

How should we think about the contribution photojournalism might make to the task of social change?

Reflecting on the Kony2012 phenomenon I concluded with observations about the difficulty of specifying how political change comes about and our potential contribution to it.

Thinking more about this, I recalled videos in which two of the best photographers of our time reflected on the relationship of their work to activism. They warrant another view for the important insights they made.

In Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist, a 2004 event at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ken Light and Fred Ritchin converse with Salgado about the relationship between his work and the injustices he has portrayed. This is a 90 minute film that is worth watching in its entirety, but I have extracted here a crucial 7 minute segment where they address the issue of activism directly:

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This clip begins with Light asking Ritchin about the activism in Salgado’s work. Ritchin contrasts Salgado’s approach to the conventional desire of photographers to be witnesses who make things visible, and details the novelty (at least in 2004) of people working in alliance with NGOs. Then – contrary to the video’s title – Salgado in fact declares he is not an activist. Not because he doesn’t want his work to effect change, but because he has a complex understanding of the relationship between his work and activism. His description of photography as only a small slice in the overall dynamic of activism that might produce change is significant for its realistic modesty. It’s well worth watching and thinking about.

In a 2010 video produced by the Open Society Institute, Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to expand the circle of understanding. This is another 7 minutes well worth your time, even if you’ve seen it before:

Meiselas’ thoughtful articulation of her approach chimes with Salgado’s humility. She understands photography as giving people an opportunity to respond, offering a bridge they can possibly cross, creating the possibility of connecting and engaging. “Can we really point to things that have changed because photographs were made?,” she asks. “This is the dilemma, the challenge and the hope.”

That Meiselas answers her question with a cautious desire rather than a definitive declaration is hugely significant. As she articulates so well, the power of the image is all about potential rather than certainty, and that potential depends upon associations, collaborations and relationships through which images might have additional lives.

I think we should follow the lead of Salgado and Meiselas and reset our expectations of what photography, especially photojournalism, can do in the face of global challenges. If we persist with the flawed idea that somehow there is a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the world, and the world doesn’t change instantly, we foster a resentment against either image makers or their audience. What we need is a more complex understanding of how change evolves and a more humble appreciation of how we might contribute, even as those contributions are ever more urgently needed.

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media economy photography politics

Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change

A week on from the “Kony 2012” video eruption, I want to take a step back and ask: what does this tells us about the media economy, what does it suggest about the state of activism, and how should we think about change in the face of global problems?

I’m not going to add much to the enormous volume of critical analysis on Invisible Children’s campaign. Whydev.org has a comprehensive readers digest of links, and posts from Unmuted, Michael Wilkerson and Alex de Waal detail what de Waal calls the “dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” I too see in the video. Ethan Zukerman has a great overview, Charlie Beckett offers a self-styled grumpy indictment, while the defence comes from Bridgette Bugay, Chris Blattmann and, of course, Invisible Children themselves. For me, the militarized vision of Invisible Children – both in terms of its red-shirted “army for peace” and its proposals for how to capture Joseph Kony – contains more than a whiff of the Machine Gun Preacher, and that’s not a recommendation.

That said, I want to move beyond the framework of ‘the video right or wrong’ and look at three important issues:

1. The media economy

The viral speed and spread of the Kony video has been incredible, and it underscores how “tastemakers, communities of participation and the unexpected” work together to promote a small number of videos on to the global cultural stage. Significantly, the length of any video is not a determinant of potential virality, meaning that the conventional wisdom about our allegedly shortened attention spans need to be seriously questioned.

The scale and quality of the critical response to the Kony video has also been momentous. If you spend time online you might take these things for granted, but the ease with which passionate and knowledgeable voices can now be heard is quite remarkable. In this case the access we now have to Ugandan journalists like Rosabell Kagumir is also a plus. While her video response has been viewed by ‘only’ 400,000 people, a fraction of tens of millions who have viewed the Kony video, that total nonetheless exceeds the daily circulation of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Our global media economy is now marked by networked relations of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media that make those categories meaningless, something manifested in the diverse range of sources curated by The Guardian’s Live Blog of the debate.

2: Contemporary activism

I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:

In an otherwise powerful post, TMS Ruge let fly:

The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.

Ok, so the Borowitz tweet is a little bit funny. And of course it’s fine and correct to say that “Oprah and bracelets won’t solve the problem.” But let’s also think about what has happened and what these denunciations assume.

A personal account first. I was working at home last Monday. After I encountered the burst of attention about the Kony video in my social media stream, I went downstairs and found my teenage daughter, recently back from school, watching something on her smartphone. It was the Kony video, all 30 minutes of it. She found it because it was in her social media stream, it came to her via friends’ recommendations, and they were debating its content and meaning. In the end, scepticism meant they weren’t impressed by the action pack. It was a stunning moment where I observed at first hand the very phenomenon so many were beginning to comment on.

What those comments have too often missed is they way young viewers negotiated the meaning of what they were watching. They didn’t just swallow a party line. Their critical engagement was captured in this story of London teenagers’ reactions, as well as the comment from Jess on this post. The critics have complained the Kony video homogenizes and infantilizes the issue of the LRA. But some of those same critics have homogenized and infantilized viewers of the video. There is a sense the production is so slick there can be only one message received (except, of course, by urbane critics) and any response like passing it on is evidence of the victory of emotion over reason.

The viral success of the Kony video demonstrates you can get attention for distant stories, and that emotion and reason can work together. Getting attention is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy that’s how many get their news), recipients accepting a recommendation, viewing some or all of the story, and making a decision to comment on it, or pass it on, or both.

We can obscure his complexity by repeating snide comments about “slacktivism,” but as Zeynap Tufekci writes this is

not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.

Isn’t that something that we want, people thinking and acting in ways they haven’t previously? Amazingly, some of the critical responses to the reception of the Kony video have derided the idea of “raising awareness” as “vapid” and “useless”. Of course I understand the limits of awareness when the video in question is flawed. But awareness is not simply the product of the video’s content; it is the end result of the video and the (unintended) debate it prompted. And even with a flawed video awareness can only be a problem in itself if you believe that people are just passive recipients rather than active viewers who contribute to and participate in the subsequent debate.

3. Change in the face of global problems

There is, without question, a big difference between the sort of activism generated by the Kony video and solving problems on the ground in distant locations. But I think this episode should prompt us to conduct a hard-headed analysis of a soul-searching question: what can we who are at a distance actually do in the face of global problems to change things?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to formulate a better understanding of what contribution, if any (dare I say it), photographers can make to global change. I’m a long way from knowing how to discuss this let alone having an answer, so I want to end with a few thoughts that demand more work. But we should begin by examining the conventional assumptions about how change is achieved.

The first observation is that if you have, like me, worked on campaigns and in practical politics, you quickly come to realise there is no place, no ground, where you can go to easily solve problems. There’s no magic room where some Wizard of Oz-like character is pulling the levers of power. If only it were that simple. Power exists in networks and relationships, and it’s not under anyone’s control. We are all, to differing degrees, at a distance from the problems, even if we suffer directly.

The second observation is that the standard approach to change assumes a set of linear, causal relations between information, knowledge and action. If someone provides information, you can know and action will result. That, of course, is the assumption at the heart of the Kony video, but significantly it’s also an assumption at the heart of critical responses to the Kony video. The critics think that if the information is wrong then poor action will result.

No one would argue against trying to seek the best information so as to make better understanding possible. But the linkage between that and desired outcomes is not clear. Social movements like those in the US promoting civil rights and women’s rights have seen decades of individual and collective action make imperfect progress, through a series of small, uneven steps that have culminated in unfinished advances. Nobody planned them at the beginning and at various points along the way few knew what the outcome would be. As they persevered there were competing strategies, violent and non-violent, people working within established social institutions as well as beyond them in cultural spaces, full time activists and (mostly) occasional participants. They deployed diverse tactics like writing, picturing, speaking, voting, protesting, and much more.

All this is to say when we think hard about pursuing change we should adopt a more humble approach to what we can do and how we can do it. We then have to insist upon the importance and urgency of doing something even when it seems limited and uncertain. In this context, symbolic action should not be underestimated. As Tufekci notes:

there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.

And the key word in that quote? May. There are no guarantees. Who knows what can come of something even if it seems insufficient?

So let’s understand that this episode shows the importance of social media in the structure of the news economy, as well as the supply of compassion that can drive attention amongst those who don’t use traditional media. And let’s not write off the actions or motives of those who made Kony2012 viral, even if we fervently wish it had been another video in another campaign.

Featured photo: Screenshot from Invisible Children page detailing their response to the critiques of Kony2012. The original photo is by Glenna Gordon, and she discusses the image and its use here and here

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More posts photography politics

The myth of compassion fatigue

The dream of photojournalism is that when a crisis is pictured the image will have an effect on its audience leading to action.

However, according to Jacques Rancière, the dominant mood of our time revolves around “a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image.” This suspicion is generated in part by “the disappointed belief in a straight line” – as visualised in the photography of Sarkozy at Rwanda’s genocide museum – “from perception, affection, comprehension and action”.[nbnote ] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London, 2009), p. 103.[/nbnote]

Before we can construct a meaningful account that traces possible links between visual representation, knowledge and action, we need to dispense with some conventional wisdoms that purport to explain how photographs work. With this post I am publishing the first draft of a new research paper that undertakes some of the excavation necessary to clear the way for that construction. I believe one of the largest obstacles to be removed is the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis.

One of the commonest claims relating to the alleged impact of photographs of atrocity, violence and war is that they induce ‘compassion fatigue’ in the public at large. This claim often starts with an assertion about our media saturated world, and is part of the general suspicion about the capacity of images Rancière noted. At its heart is the notion that, far from changing the world, photographs work repetitively, numbing our emotional capacity and thereby diminishing the possibility of an effective response to international crises.

Expressions of this belief can be found in a wide range of disparate contexts,[nbnote ]Here are examples from 2010-12 in which this belief manifests itself: in an interview following his World Press Photo award, photography Pietro Mastruzo noted “Shocking pictures do not really communicate anymore, because the audience is accustomed to looking at them”; the late Magnum photographer Eve Arnold was reported as once saying, “You know in the beginning we thought we were going to change the world. I think people live in so much visual material these days, billions of photographs annually, that they grow numb after too much exposure”; the new media artist Peggy Nelson told Nieman Storyboard that, “we can’t have all the news from everywhere and everyone all the time. There’s info overload and there’s compassion fatigue”; in an analysis of disaster coverage, University of London professor Pavrati Nair wrote, “The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images”; in his review of the Tate Modern’s Exposed, noted photography writer Gerry Badger made a direct endorsement of Sontag’s 1977 statement that “Images anaesthetise”; Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing, said of violent images on the web, “human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video….at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?”; and award-winning documentarian Danfung Dennis introduced his new video app by claiming “Society was numb to the images of conflict”. Even academic research projects exploring how images affect people start from bold assertions of compassion fatigue. See Charlie Beckett, “Four steps to success in a humanitarian appeal,” 15 November 2011, which begins: “People are exhausted by messages they receive from humanitarian NGOs. They’ve become desensitized to images of distant suffering and repeated appeals for help.”[/nbnote] and numerous writers and photographers attest to the ubiquity of this view.[nbnote ]John Taylor notes the popularity of the claim that photography is analgesic, Carolyn Dean remarks that the belief is commonplace in both Europe and the United States, and Susie Linfield describes the thesis as “a contemporary truism, indeed a contemporary cliche” such that “to dispute this idea is akin to repudiating evolution or joining the flat-earth society.” See John Taylor, “Problems in Photojournalism: Realism, the nature of news and the humanitarian narrative,” Journalism Studies 1 (2000), pp. 137-38; Carolyn Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca, 2004), p. 2; and Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago, 2010), p. 45.[/nbnote] I argue in this paper that the compassion fatigue thesis, like the repeated invocation of “pornography,” is an allegory that serves as an alibi for other issues and prevents their investigation.

What is notable about compassion fatigue is that it means one thing in the context of health care and social work, and the reverse in relation to the media and politics.

From perhaps the 1980s and certainly the 1990s, compassion fatigue was understood as “Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and diagnosed in people either suffering directly from trauma or individuals working closely with people suffering trauma. In this context, although it concerned a set of negative impacts on those affected – such as reduced pleasure and increased feelings of hopelessness – it derived from the problem that “caring too much can hurt.” In other words, compassion fatigue was prompted by an excess of compassion rather than a lack of compassion. As the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project states, when caregivers, who have a strong identification with those suffering, fail to practice “self-care” they can be prone to destructive behaviours.[nbnote ]See http://www.compassionfatigue.org/. See also Eric Gentry, “Compassion Fatigue: A Crucible of Transformation,” Journal of Trauma Practice, 1 (2002), pp. 37-61; Bertrand Taithe, “Horror, Abjection and Compassion: From Dunant to Compassion Fatigue,” New Formations 62 (2007), p. 135; and Charles Figley, “Compassion Fatigue: An Introduction.”[/nbnote]

Susan Sontag is the writer who drove much of the popularity of this thesis in relation to photography, and the paper unpacks her arguments in On Photography, exploring their logic and supporting evidence (or lack thereof) before discussing how she retracted much of them in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag’s reversal has had little impact on the ubiquity of the compassion fatigue thesis, and that is in large part a result of arguments like those found in Susan Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue. The third section of this paper dissects Moeller’s claims to reveal how in her hand ‘compassion fatigue’ is an empty signifier that becomes attached to a range of often contradictory explanations and factors.

The limits of Moeller’s text are exposed in the fourth section of the paper, which reviews all the available evidence of which I am aware relating to the relations between photographs, compassion and charitable responses. None of that evidence supports the compassion fatigue thesis.

While you will need to read the whole paper to consider all the arguments, one bit of data can be presented here.

The dictionary definition of compassion fatigue cites the “diminishing public response” to charity appeals as evidence. But is the public response diminishing?

In Britain there are 166,000 charities that received donations totalling £10 billion in 2009. In the United States, there are more than 800,000 charitable organisations, and Americans gave them more than $300 billion in 2007.

The British public’s response to disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £106 million) shows that the willingness to act on empathy for the victims of natural disasters is still considerable even when they are distant.

The DEC conducts consolidated appeals for the fourteen leading aid NGOs in the UK, and a look at their various appeals over the last few years shows that there is a constant willingness to donate, albeit at variable rates, from the 2009 Gaza appeals’s £8.3 million to the massive £392 million given for the 2004 Tsunami appeal.

There is, then, no absence of compassion as expressed in charitable giving. That, however, is not to say that all issues are responded to equally. There are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally diminished response named ‘compassion fatigue’.

It is time to remove this myth as an obstacle to understanding how photographs of extreme situations can and do work. I hope you will read the paper and engage the argument. It is a draft, and there is much scope for improvement.

Photo: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy visits the Memorial of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on February 25, 2010. Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday paid homage to the victims of the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis during a highly symbolic visit aimed at mending strained relations. ‘In the name of the people of France, I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,’ he wrote in the visitors book of the main genocide memorial in the capital Kigali. Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images – used under license.

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photography politics

Responding to crises: the problem of ‘donor fatigue’

The second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake has seen some excellent follow-up reporting on what the international aid effort has achieved (see The Global Post series, with photos by Ron Haviv, as well as this morning’s Guardian report and picture gallery amongst others). This focus on where the aid money has gone highlights one of the major problems with international responses to such crises – much of the money promised by governments fails to materialise.

In thinking about how outsiders react to coverage of crises, ‘compassion fatigue’ is commonly cited. I’m writing a research paper on why the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis is a myth, and will be making that available in the near future for debate. With regards to Haiti, the international community’s compassion was never in doubt. Coverage was extensive, often powerful, and the publics’ charitable response was great. Even if it is applicable in other contexts, it doesn’t stand up as an explanation here.

What the story of Haiti’s aid money helps demonstrate is that ‘donor fatigue’ is a more significant issue. Although ‘donor fatigue’ is sometimes related to ‘compassion fatigue’ (see here), it is something entirely different. It refers to the fact that international donors – meaning principally governments – fail to fulfil their initial commitments. Within days of a crisis, headlines are often made with officials basking in a humanitarian glow by pledging millions to a relief effort.

When accounts are later examined, those promises are regularly unfulfilled. Haiti is a case in point, with The Guardian reporting that countries “have delivered only about half of the billions of dollars promised for reconstruction, according to UN data.” The Guardian’s detailed data analysis (source of the above graph) shows that:

Venezuela and the US, which promised the lion’s share of reconstruction funds – more than $1.8bn together – have disbursed just 24% ($223m) and 30% ($278m) respectively. Japan and Finland are among the few donors to have fully met their pledges.

Calling this underfunding donor fatigue is misleading. ‘Fatigue’ suggests a reduction over time through repetition. The claim of donor fatigue implicitly assumes there was a time governments once fulfilled their pledges, but they now no longer do so. I suspect that is historically inaccurate. My sense is that government’s have always generally pledged more than they have paid out.

Some support for this comes from looking at how UN Consolidated Appeals operate. The Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) is the annual global agenda of humanitarian needs. In 2011 there were twenty-one appeals to governments for funds, and the UN’s Financial Tracking Service reports that only 61% of the total required was raised. In the last five years CAP fulfilment has been in the range of 60-70%, and in 2001 it was as low as 55%. The record of insufficient government aid to meet global appeals is both constant and long-standing. ‘Fatigue’ is therefore better understood as inaction or indifference. Most importantly, all this is hidden by the frequent invocation of ‘compassion fatigue’ as an explanation for any inadequate international response.

Can images play a role in overcoming government inaction in the face of humanitarian crises? Yes, pictures can provoke. In Malawi (2002) and Niger (2005), government donors responded to food insecurity only after the international media started carrying reports of famine.[nbnote ]See my paper “The Iconography of Famine” (2011), pp. 18-19 for quotes and references.[/nbnote] Far from being the cause of a mythical ‘compassion fatigue’, pictures have the potential to disturb the official incalcitrance we mistakenly call ‘donor fatigue’.

Featured photo: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Aug. 28, 2011) An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 26 transports Rear Adm. Steven Ratti, U.S. Southern Command director of operations, from a temporary medical site at the Killick Coast Guard Base during Continuing Promise 2011. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)

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media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.

 

  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).
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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