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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

September 11, 2001: Imaging the real, struggling for meaning

 

As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches images of the event are being recycled and recirculated. Many of them are familiar, and the meaning of the event now seems fixed. But anniversaries are part of the process of fixing memory, and as they are repeated they can obscure the uncertainty that prevailed at the moment they now memorialise. They also render a general date as a singular moment, obscuring other historical events of great significance that occurred in previous years on September 11

A couple of weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an essay for The Information Technology, War and Peace Project at Brown University on how we struggled to comprehend ‘9/11’ and the role photography played in that process. I am re-posting it here, ten years on, as both an act of commemoration, and a reminder about the interpretative work required to render something as a world historical event.

“The images were just reality, in every bit of its full-color unmediated ugliness.” At first glance, who could disagree? A tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Frightened workers hanging from the windows. An aircraft flashing across the sky and slamming into the second tower. A fireball. The collapse. The screams of the on-lookers, the dust, the rubble, the darkness, and then the silence. As ugly a reality as anyone would never wish to see again.

But we did see it again. And again, and again. Over and over. Television went to live coverage, and as word spread through homes and offices connected to global news networks, hundreds of millions of people distant from the epicenter of disaster became eyewitnesses to the previously unimaginable. We sat with mouths open and heads in hands, aghast at the events unfolding before our own eyes. Real events, in real time, offered up to us through the reality of television. Which then looped the video of those extraordinary one hundred minutes in which some 6,000 people were killed [a number later reduced to 2,977 civilians], and repeated it, and reused it, and recycled it endlessly, searing those images into the public mind.

And yet those images stubbornly defy comprehension. For all that we were there even when we lived elsewhere, for all that we could re-witness them on subsequent news bulletins, and for all that we can still access them on various web sites, the video footage of September 11, 2001 does not seem real. That is why the fictional realm of the disaster movie became for so many the referent of the domain of fact we observed that day.

The morning after brought the newspapers. Across the world, there was a remarkable unanimity of image and headline, with the exploding towers as a sign of attack, war, apocalypse, and terror. My own daily paper in England was no different. On the front page of The Guardian was the fireball produced at the moment the second aircraft flew into the north tower. Inside, however, was something quite different. Text and advertisements were evacuated from pages two and three, and replaced with a single black and white photograph stretching all the way across the double spread. It was southern Manhattan, enveloped in the dust and smoke of the now destroyed World Trade Center. One of the paper’s staff explained that the newsroom’s initial reaction to the catastrophe was stunned silence, and that the use of the opening photographs the following day was designed to make the paper begin “speechlessly.” It worked, and you lingered over the image, reflecting on the events that had produced it, still struggling to come to terms with the event. Television later employed a similar strategy. On the Friday after the attack two news programs in England concluded their broadcasts with a series of still images, each static on the screen for much longer than usual, to the accompaniment of somber music.

The capacity of a photograph to prompt reflection, particularly after a day of non-stop video, recalls Susan Sontag’s argument that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Indeed, one consequence for the media of September 11 has been something of a reinvigoration of photojournalism. Many newspapers have published remarkable images captured by photographers who were at or near the World Trade Center as soon as they learnt of the disaster. With Manhattan being one of the world’s most media rich environments, some of the world’s best-known photojournalists have found the biggest story of recent time taking place in their backyard. And with the web sites of well known media outlets offering a cost effective capacity for publishing the work of these photojournalists, we have been able to see the powerful images of James Nachtway, Anthony Suau (Photoessays @ Time), Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress (Portfolio @ The New Yorker) faster than was previously possible.

The use of photojournalism simultaneously in both print and electronic form highlights an important feature of photography. In and of themselves, photographs do not convey a particular narrative that gives meaning to an event. Photographs rely on headings, captions, and accompanying articles for the creation of meaning. Nachtwey’s photo essay “Shattered” [now updated with some outtakes] comprises fourteen images, [originally] displayed without captions. The lack of framing that results from the absence of text allows the viewer to read them in a number of ways. But when five of those photographs are taken from the series and, along with the work of others, resituated in the special print issue of Time in a section entitled “Day of Infamy,” they function differently. The cumulative effect of associating the pictures with text in a particular way is that they act as an affidavit supporting “the case for rage and retribution” angrily proclaimed by Lance Morrow in the magazine’s final essay. However, the creation of photographic meaning through intertextual location is not restricted to the presence of immediate referents. It also includes the way in which contemporary images are situated through visual citations to established historical narratives. For example, Thomas Franklin’s shot of three fireman raising the Stars and Stripes on a pole amid the ruins invokes the (staged) image of five marines raising the flag at Mt Surabachi, Iwo Jima, in early 1945, thereby further connecting September 11 to World War II.

It is ironic that in an age where real time video has proliferated, the very ubiquity of the stream of images has revivified the power of photojournalism. All the more so given that the attacks on the World Trade Center were said to herald the end of the age of irony. Writing in Time [in one of those proclamations that looks grossly overstated ten years on], Roger Rosenblatt saw the carnage as a chance to chastise the chattering classes who he says claim nothing is real, while other commentators have seized the opportunity to deride those intellectuals they cast as propagators of postmodern and/or postcolonial themes about representation and power. Such polemics minimize the interpretive work a catastrophe demands. One photograph from a picture essay concerned with the aftermath of September 11 [above] reveals the extent to which the reality of a disaster is neither instantly nor easily apprehended. Focusing on “the media blitz,” Anthony Suau’s image centers on a reporter going live to air with an interview for a television station, “Ground Zero” a long way off in the background, while the street is lined with the banks of electronic equipment necessary for the broadcast. As the caption to the image observes, “on nearly every street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” We are all looking for angles, all trying for comprehension, all struggling to understand.

Far from sidelining issues of representation and power, September 11 has foregrounded them. While the hijackings, the crashing of the aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the collapse of the buildings, and the massive loss of life are all too real and all too shocking as events, what they mean is anything but clear. Allan Feldman once observed, “the event is not that which happens. The event is that which can be narrated.” The hours, days, and weeks since the attacks have seen a deluge of different narratives. The outpouring of words, from the personal reflections of those involved to the political recommendations of those at a distance (most of which Susan Sontag has condemned for “reality-concealing rhetoric” designed to “infantilize the public”), all accompanied by a multitude of images, represents the impossibility of an instant and agreed narrativization of an event, even when we have all witnessed its occurrence live.

The act of witnessing made possible by real time video and twenty-four hour news channels has, despite the impression of being beyond mediation, some real limitations. Indeed, what we saw on television on September 11 wasn’t what the event was like. The event was much more horrific than the impression conveyed by the television pictures. Remarkably for an event that saw more people die on US soil than any other single day in American history, the television coverage was marked by the absence of death. Viewing the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing through footage shot from helicopters and the higher reaches of Manhattan (and pooled by the various networks, thereby creating a uniform image across the various outlets) were an oddly dehumanizing experience. Both geographic distance and compressed temporality strangely sanitized even the rarely used footage of people plunging from the World Trade Center to their deaths. We saw these tragic victims, small specks against the vast towers, leap from their offices, and then disappear into the realm of imagination. People spoke of appalling sights, but we did not see them. Witnesses revealed the presence of many body parts in the rubble, but television did not show them. Reports referred to “streets slick with blood,” but the video did not disclose it. Photographers followed suit – John Albanese, a volunteer fireman and amateur photographer who spent twelve hours working and photographing amid the devastation, wrote in one of his captions that “we were looking for bodies, we were finding body parts, we were waiting for a body bag to take away a leg,” but he did not record this pictorially. In all of Time’s photo essays (whether in print or on the web) we see only one body, carried on a stretcher by rescuers, a limp arm protruding from under the blue sheet. In this absence, the vast sea of personal photographs – family snaps, holiday shots, wedding images – circulating on notices for the missing victims, are what brings us face to face with the human loss.

For both television producers and picture editors, the cleansing of the disaster coverage so as to remove graphic images of death was a conscious decision not to reveal the full extent of reality. Moreover, this decision to exclude occurred at more than one level. The picture agencies and pool sources removed many of the most disturbing (and most realistic) images from those they distributed to their media customers. In turn, the editors at those media outlets made further choices to weed out graphic portrayals of the slaughter. In London, The Guardian’s picture desk received more than 1,200 images on the Tuesday of the attack, choosing but a fraction for publication in the paper or on the web site. Criteria for such selection, which is unavoidable given the extent of choice, is far from clear. One picture editor recently described to me how his standards involved imagining what the victim’s family would say if shown the picture and being guided by their reaction. This is testament to the fact that, despite the conventional perception of a media pack with a bloodlust for the unvarnished portrayal of death and destruction, journalistic practice is governed by a social economy of taste and system of self-censorship which severely restricts what we see, especially when the disaster is close to home and anything but foreign. This may or may not be a good thing. We can readily understand that a voyeurism of violence should be avoided. But one conclusion cannot be ignored: the resultant coverage is anything but wholly realistic.

One striking feature of September 11 is the way in which photography has served a personal desire to find an alibi for the real in a moment of great uncertainty. John Albanese produced his photo essay because his time searching the debris for survivors seemed unreal: “It was so quiet – I had the strangest feeling looking out at the devastation – but I couldn’t cry. Because it didn’t seem real. I thought, I’m going to reach out, and it’s going to be a picture. It can’t be real.” Individuals have sought an image that can be their own “certificate of presence” (in Roland Barthes’ terms) for the unimaginable. Thus the writer A. M. Homes described how reaching for the camera was the first response to witnessing from an apartment window the planes’ flying into the twin towers. Likewise, the title image in Anthony Suau’s photo essay “Aftershock” [no longer online] shows a crowd of onlookers gazing at the event, with three of them raising cameras to the site/sight. It’s as if our own eyes, even when viewing the event directly and personally, even when we see it repeatedly on television, requires the silent confirmation that a still image provides. But not even that confirmation confers meaning upon the event. Far from it. The search for this event’s meaning is something with which we will continue to struggle for some time yet.

Photo: “The media blitz was constant from the moment of the first crash. Viewers could watch the situation develop minute by minute and rarely leave “”ground zero”” no matter where in the country they were. On nearly every other street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” Copyright Anthony Suau/Time, September 2001.

September 11, 2001 is regarded by many as ‘the day the world changed’. But different historical periods don’t end one day and begin the next. In my assessment the initial political and military response to the attacks were in fact a ‘return of the past’, in which cold war logic was revived. I make this case in a 2002 article “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11.” 

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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

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photography

Tod Papageorge and the ‘truth’ of photography

Tod Papergeorge is one of the most insightful photographers around. Interviewed by Mark Durden for foto8 last November (I’m catching up on some reading while snowed in), he offered some interesting views on photography, documentary and truth.

Photo: Tod Papergeorge, ‘Central Park, 1978’

Durden asked Papageorge if he thought his work was part of what John Szarkowski called the New Documents:

New Documents was an effective title for that exhibition, but none of the photographers included in it—Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander—nor any other photographers I knew at that time, would have used the word “documentary” to describe what they were doing in their work. If nothing else, Robert Frank’s The Americans had taken care of that by defining an aesthetic that depended on poetic transformation, rather than an (apparently) literal fealty to a series of facts.

As for me, my initial introduction to serious photography occurred in 1962, when I discovered a couple of early pictures of Cartier-Bresson’s while taking a college course in basic photography. They convinced me, literally on the spot, to be a photographer—and not because I had an itch to document this or that aspect of the world. I saw these pictures as poetry, Cartier-Bresson as a prodigious poet, and photography as a way to possibly do something roughly in the same camp.

Later in the interview, Durden asked Papageorge to expand on his statement (made in Papageorge’s essay on Gary Winogrand) that while photography pictures the world it does not follow that it has a moral responsibility to it. Was this not contrary to writers like Susan Sontag and other critics, said Durden:

It’s always been puzzling to me that capacious minds like Sontag’s, to say nothing of those of almost every art historian, look at a photograph and see not a picture, but the literal world held in their palm. With that, they’re revealing themselves to be no more sophisticated than the proverbial tribesman who believes that a photograph made of him steals a piece of his soul. There seems to be no cure for this universal form of innocence, or ignorance, but it is, to put it mildly, frustrating to spend years working as a photographer and writer about photography and realise that this misunderstanding is as prevalent today as it was the day I first saw those Cartier-Bresson photographs—and recognised them as picture-poems.

You mention Genet and writing, a good parallel. Let’s say that the young Sontag reads the front page of the Times, and then turns to Our Lady of the Flowers, both experiences generated by black marks on a page, yet utterly different in their intention and, presumably, effect. Is it so difficult for her not to see, then, that the photographs on that front page are similarly different from the Diane Arbus portraits she’s thinking of writing about?

For Papageorge, failing to appreciate the differences between news photographs and those of Arbus, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and others was the product of a philosophical error:

…Sontag (and legions of French critics and their progeny) was tarring photography with a tired brush, based on a much older relationship that obtained between pictures and moral lessons, and the unexamined belief that the pictures themselves were in some way at least related to the literal truth.

Of course, semiotics teaches us, if we needed the reminder, that a photograph represents a physical trace of the world, and therefore exists in an ontological space quite different from that of any of the non-filmic arts. I don’t buy that argument: ontologically, a photograph is a unique kind of picture, but a picture nonetheless, one that has radically transformed the piece of the world it describes, whether for artistic or journalistic or any other ends, but (obviously) has not transported it out of its picture-state into some nebulous truth-state.

I don’t want to draw any big conclusions at this point, other than to say that we need to think carefully about how Papageorge’s statements impact on the desire for photographs as documents. If work understood as ‘documentary’ is better appreciated as ‘poetic’, what are the implications of this for truth claims based on pictures?