Spectatorship, Suffering and Ethics

Susan Sontag famously argued, “photographs of atrocities dull moral response.”[1] In her follow-up book Regarding the Pain of Others she issued a partial retraction. Sontag argued that people can become habituated to images of violence, but some photographs for some people continue to shock and thereby prompt (at least some) moral reflection. The images cannot provide anything more for critical self-assessment, however: that was “a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”[2]

Recent images of drowned children on the shores of Greek Islands, graphic and grotesque executions in Syria and Iraq, catastrophic deaths from Ebola and the violence of yet another Israel-Gaza war are asking tough ethical questions about visualisation, representation and distribution of imagery that media outlets are permitted to show. There are many arguments for and against publishing images of suffering and horror. Kenneth Jarecke, who’s graphic and disturbing photograph of a burned Iraqi soldier atop a tank during the first Persian Gulf War went largely unpublished, posed a similar argument in American Photo magazine in 1991: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”[3]

Visual journalists must have an awareness of their bias and privilege when considering the production, publication and distribution of imagery. Western media and international NGOs are fond publishing images of anonymous bodies and victims of suffering and violence from outside Europe and North America. However, they exercise far more constraint when the story is closer to home, or the victims are identifiable as Europeans and North Americans. Western media has a habit of picking and choosing which images may horrify an audience, perhaps believing their judgement and intentions are morally and ethically superior.

When Time Magazine published a photo essay on maternal health in West Africa[4], it contained ten pages of images documenting the slow death of a mother who bled to death giving birth to her twins. The photo essay was acclaimed in Western media however Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah commented, “What is it that death is considered a private, sacred affair when a person is dying is not an African, but a public event when the dying is an African?”[5] Warah lamented that in her opinion the author and photographer stripped away all the woman’s dignity and indeed questioned whether or not such imagery would have been published if she was white?” In defence of Time Magazine, it could be argued that such stories serve as ‘shock’ Public Service Announcements (PSA), highlighting and raising awareness about infant mortality on the African continent. However, many note the hypocrisy of Western media in being unwilling to show dead or dying United States soldiers on the battlefield or white western women similarly dying from complications during childbirth.

Such stories also bring with them a particular set of the ethical responsibilities and important issues of the commodification of suffering. There is a fine line between exploitation and raising awareness, a line that tends to shift where large sums of money are at stake. Many Non-Government Organisations may not publically admit it, but many continue to use imagery that incites pity, sympathy and ultimately charity to solicit funding for programming. Non-Government Organisations and charities have been caught using imagery originally shot for campaigns such as the famine appeal in Ethiopia in 1984, and recycled the images several years later when droughts once again affected the elsewhere in the Horn of Africa.

The discourse surrounding the ethical use of imagery is as old as the medium itself. The first images of starving children were recorded and published in the 1880’s by British special correspondents travelling in India. At what point do we need to be reminded (again) of the horrors of war, suffering and violence, and who gets to decide that? In the case of Aylan Kurdi, the UK-based newspaper The Independent justified publishing a photograph of the young boy face down in the sand so as to be a “stark reminder of the impact of the refugee crisis.”[6] The rights and wrongs of publishing or publicising images that illustrate and communicate suffering and violence will continue to be debated long into the next century. As imagery from the most recent crisis is forgotten, new perhaps yet more compelling images will emerge again provoking sympathy, distress and discussion. Surely, the objective must be to get the audience not to look away in horror or disgust, shouldn’t we want people to stop, look and engage with imagery?

Nicholas Kristoff, an influential Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and advocate on human rights issues argues, “If I show you these pictures of dead people, you will be moved to action”. Further more, Kristoff comments, “I’m sorry for inflicting these horrific photos on you. But the real obscenity isn’t in printing pictures of dead babies — it’s in our passivity, which allows these people to be slaughtered”[7]

The publication of graphic imagery of violence and suffering is a moral, ethical and legal debate that has raged, and will no doubt continue to rage on for decades. In light of the proliferation of visual documentation of human rights abuses, the sooner visual journalists and the media propose serious solutions and potential answers to the debate, the sooner we can establish ethical practices that seek to respect the dignity and build on audience engagement.

The media are fond of exercising their rights; journalists frequently quote freedom of the press rights and freedom of expression etc. but rarely do they consider the responsibilities and obligations that come with those rights. It is likely this lack of responsibility that has contributed to the distrust, and dislike of media. In staunchly defending their rights to be present, whether covering a social, political, humanitarian, conflict or emergency scenarios, many of those in the media, including journalists, photographers and video camerapersons overlook their responsibilities. If we’re to understand the mistrust and address the aversion to our presence, we must start asking questions about our professional practice, our content and our ability to provide understanding and context in our reporting.

For a profession that thrives, and arguably profits so much from coverage of emergencies, disasters, human suffering and conflict it’s hard to turn a blind eye to accusations of “catastrophists’. Joao Silver, a Pulitzer Award winning South African photojournalist, said “It’s easy to perceive us as vultures, when you see us walking through pools of blood and corpses just to get that perfect shot, that will aesthetically show the situations as best you can so it can be printable in a newspaper”[8]

Arguably, many visual journalists are looking for what Henri Cartier-Bresson termed the ‘decisive moment’, that one compelling image that summarizes the story. It’s true that there are iconic images that perhaps sum up a conflict such as Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phuc during the Vietnam War; however, rarely does one ‘iconic’ image ever contextualize a complete narrative of human rights violations, particularly during war.

Not only have photographs of political violence and human suffering become more explicit and shocking, but almost uncensored access facilitated by ever-advancing technology has meant out response to such imagery has arguably become more muddled and fatigued, especially imagery creates by extremist jihadi groups such as Al Qaeda and ‘Daesh’.

In documentation of human rights, visual journalists and the media need to better reflect how we frame our stories. Better framing requires an understanding of how the public, governments and development organizations respond to such imagery and reports. Scholars have tried to theorize why individuals respond differently to imagery or text about violations of human rights and what role the media plays in such varied responses. Explanations include psychophysical numbing, cosmopolitan citizenry and the most common explanation of compassion fatigue. This phenomenon states that the more suffering we see, the less we feel.

Keith Tester defines compassion fatigue as “becoming so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that we stop noticing them. We are bored when we see one more tortured corpse on the television screen, and we are left unmoved…compassion fatigue means being left exhausted and tired by those reports and ceasing to think that anything at all can be done to help…compassion fatigue means a certain fatalism. It leads to the conclusion that this is just the way things are and that nothing can be done that will make a difference.[9]

Susie Linfield argues “If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat…We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be.[10] What we take from this is that looking away or not looking at all is not an option. Linfield comments that if we are to make sense of an increasingly violent world we must “look at, and look into, what James Agee called ‘the cruel radiance of what is’”. [11]

Media have the privilege of directing not only where we look, but also how we look at something, what questions should be asked and indeed how we should perhaps try to answer them. Because photographs and video coverage is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it, we the media have a responsibility to the subjects in our coverage. In our eagerness to be first, to be the best, to be recognized we cannot be forgiven for ignoring our obligations to respect the human dignity of those who have lost, or maybe never gained dignity.

Jack Donnelly, in his paper on Human Rights and Human Dignity, argues “the need for dignity rather than needs as such is the basis of human rights”.[12] While it’s imperative that we, as media, can distinguish between rights and needs, the need to respect and protect a person’s dignity is indispensable and should be at the forefront of all reporting and especially not at the expense of a subject’s dignity.

In distinguishing needs, a person living in a middle-class neighborhood of a western city will have very different needs to a member of an indigenous community say in the Amazon basin; but that’s not to say they will have different rights. The concept of universality proclaims that we all in fact have the same rights and that they are indivisible and inalienable. Needs not necessarily translate to rights, and conversely having your needs violated does not correlate with having your rights violated either from a legal or moral perspective. People with a need to be protected from harm, have both needs and rights (principle of humanity).

It reporting human rights, it is imperative that we not only identify rights holders, but we attempt to link violations of those rights to the duty bearers, whomever that may be.

This was originally written in 2017.

[1] Sontag, S (2003): Regarding the Pain of Others

[2] Robert Harriman: Sontag, Photography, and Moral Knowledge (2014)

[3] The Story Behind Ken Jarecke’s Horrific and Controversial Gulf War Photo. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 February 2016, from http://www.americanphotomag.com/story-behind-ken-jareckes-horrific-and-controversial-gulf-war-photo

[4] Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone: The Story of Mamma — Photo Essays. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 February 2016, from http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1993805,00.html

[5] Images of the “Dying African” border on pornography (2010)

[6] If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will? | Europe | News | The Independent. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 February 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/if-these-extraordinarily-powerful-images-of-a-dead-syrian-child-washed-up-on-a-beach-don-t-change-10482757.html

[7] Kristof, N. D. (2005, February 23). The Secret Genocide Archive. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/23/opinion/the-secret-genocide-archive.html

[8] Keller, B. (1304643641). ‘To Be on the Edge of History’. Retrieved 13 February 2016, from http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/the-inner-lives-of-wartime-photographers/

[9] Keith Tester (2001) Compassion, Morality and the Media

[10] Linfield, S. (2012). The cruel radiance: Photography and political violence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[11] Ibid

[12] Jack Donnelly (1982) Human Rights and Human Dignity