Warning: Some of the photos in this blog post are quite confronting
Every single day whether we turn on the news, open a newspaper or even browse Facebook we are often confronted with news stories or posts, which visually show people suffering. There is a question of morality to viewing the suffering of others- however; news outlets are continually showing more graphic photos than ever before.
In my opinion I feel the average human can only begin to understand the suffering that others are going through if we can see it. With many media outlets competing against each other the “shock factor” has become increasingly more important. Judith Butler analyses this concept in depth in the journal “Torture and the Ethics of Photography.” In this journal she questions what it means to become ethically responsive, to consider and attend to the suffering of others, and, more generally, which frames permit the representability of the human and which do not.
A photograph cannot by itself provide an interpretation and the journalistic analysis is what helps us move beyond the image presented. Although a photo has the power to move us while in the moment, they are often quickly forgotten to the next sensationalized image. Judith Butler goes on to say that when viewing graphic images we interpret the interpretation that has been imposed upon us. A key example of this happening is the image of The Falling Man during the September 11 World Trade Centre attacks. The image shows a still of the man falling almost as if he is “relaxed” and “calm” awaiting his fate. Although this image was plastered all over the media at the time, a quick Google search for the other captured stills of the man paint a less composed fall.
In the demand for more graphic content we have degraded the photographed person/s the right to privacy during their suffering and instead try to act like we are truly suffering by viewing it. In my University tutorial the question of whether who suffers the most came up, between the victim and the viewer. In my opinion of seeing the suffering of others through my global travel I was appalled that a large majority of students thought the viewer suffered more. There is no doubt that images are distressful to the viewer, but we cannot truly understand the pain of the victim unless we had experienced the suffering.
Emy Koopman analysed the psychological aspect of viewing suffering in the journal “Reading the Suffering of Others; The Ethical Possibilities of Empathetic Unsettlement.” This journal states that poststructuralist critics have claimed that trauma or suffering can only be represented, insofar as it can be represented at all, by the gap or aporia, by language that defies referentiality. This article further goes onto question the balance between disruption and engagement in photographing suffering and how these photos are crucial for us to relate to those in the photos.
However, in viewing the suffering of others we are also allowing the families of those who suffered to be haunted by these graphic images. A recent example being the beheading of James Foley by ISIS where his sister plead with media outlets to stop sharing those horrific last moments.
Photos of suffering have been evident throughout history and have allowed for historians and society to better understand horrific events that have occurred. I personally feel that photos of suffering help the average person become more informed about global events, however, I can’t help but feel the person suffering deserves the right to privacy and respect. But the question remains, are these images doing more harm than good? And when do you draw the line on what is/isn’t ethical?
Let me know what you think in the comments!
Emy Koopman: Reading The Suffering of Others: http://www.jltonline.de/index.php/articles/article/viewFile/285/853
Judith Butler: Torture and the Ethics of Photography http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/torture-and-the-ethics-of-photography/
James Foley’s Sister’s Response: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/james-foleys-sister-kelly-dont-watch-video-my-brothers-beheading-1461868