“Exhibitions of perpetrator photographs have been criticised for promoting voyeurism and extending suffering through the reiteration of images of human degradation,” explains Simon (2010, p.46).
There are a number of ethical issues that arise when considering the way in which suffering is represented in the media. I want to approach this post in the loose form of a debate — I want to construct an basic comparison between the ways in which suffering is presented via the medium of photography. Which is more effective — creative “beautiful” images of suffering or raw, real and not as aesthetically appealing images? Which provides the viewer with the most accurate interpretation and which serves to deliver the most impact?
How is suffering represented in almost all forms of media? Dramatically. As Sontag (2003, p.36) states:
“The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or humane. (Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantly represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all — as if there were no such thing as suffering by inadvertence or misadventure.”
What kind of response is the suffering depicted designed to elicit from the viewer? Is it supposed to make society aware of atrocities, of the reality of certain situations? Echoing this idea and quoted in the lecture was a photographer’s comment where he confessed, “if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies.” Is it supposed to prompt its viewers to take action or evoke sympathy — not empathy, as unless they have been through similar circumstances, they can only feel for the victim not feel with them. Is it supposed to serve as some form of entertainment? As commentator Madame Riccoboni once explained, “one would readily create unfortunates in order to taste the sweetness of feeling sorry for them.”
I undertook a small survey of 15 individuals, asking whether raw images such those taken of Aylan’s death or more stylied images like Sebastiao Salgado’s work, had more of an impact on them. The majority decided that the rawer images felt far more real, eliciting a response of sympathy toward the victims depicted, whereas the stylised images felt more like art.
“A symbol of timeless sorrow – by raising poverty to the level of art, the liberal viewer (myself included) enjoys and denies the pain of others.” – Dorothea Lange on Sebastiao Salgado’s “Migrant Mother”.
Granted, such real and raw images of suffering can often be too distressing and offensive to be openly displayed to the public. Here, stylised images can instead get a point across in a less confronting manner. Sontag explains that “an invented horror can be quite overwhelming… But there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close up of real horror. Perhaps only the people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it” (2003, p.40).
Following reading Sontag’s work, I can’t help but wonder whether it should be only people who can do something to help those in need — the subjects of the work or others in similar situations — granted access to such images. This could help avoid any misinterpretations not intended by the photographer.
Yet quite poignantly, as curator Joseph Jordan has explained, “if we put these photographs back into the trunks or slide them back into the crumbling envelopes and conceal them in a corner of the drawer, we deny to the victims once again, the witness they deserve.”
In conclusion, it is difficult to decide which approach serves to deliver the most impact, the most accurate interpretation — as each does in differing ways. In order to allocate the best representation of suffering in photography to the social circumstance at hand, the purpose and intentions of the image must be taken into account, as must it’s audience.
SONTAG, S 2003, ‘Chapter 3’, in Regarding the pain of others, Hamish Hamilton, London., England, pp. 36-52.
SIMON, R 2010, ‘Idolatry and the Civil Covenant of Photography: On the Practice of Exhibiting Images of Suffering, Degradation, and Death’, Images: Journal Of Jewish Art & Visual Culture, 4, 1, pp. 46-56, Art & Architecture Complete.