The Ethics of Viewing Other People’s Suffering

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.

20130828115245!Omayra_SanchezFrank Fournier’s famous photograph of Omayra Sánchez a victim of the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano who later perished. 

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.


The Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a vulture stalking a starving young girl in Sudan captured by Kevin Carter. 

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.


The Falling Man captured by Richard Drew of a man falling from the North Tower following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

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.


Syrian child surrendering to a cameraman who she thought had a gun captured by Osman Sagirli

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.


Oklahoma City Bombing photo captured by Charles Porter of firefighter Chris Fields holding the dying infant Baylee Almon won a Pulitzer Prize.

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.


ISIS extremist beheads American journalist James Foley 

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?

Phan Thanh Tam, Phan Thanh Phouc, Kim Phuc, Ho Van Bon, Ho Thi TingThe 1972 photo by Huynh Cong Ut, Associated Press. The clothes of the naked girl disintegrated in the searing heat of the napalm bomb dropped by the US military. On children. 

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Related Links:

Emy Koopman: Reading The Suffering of Others:
Judith Butler: Torture and the Ethics of Photography
James Foley’s Sister’s Response:

The Ethics of Viewing Other People’s Suffering

One thought on “The Ethics of Viewing Other People’s Suffering

  1. Hi Janaya,
    I thought your take on looking at images of suffering was an interesting read,
    I liked that you discussed the use of shock value as a strategy to push papers, I agree with this assessment, I also liked that you discussed the need for more than just the photo to tell a story, as a photo alone, can only say so much without the context of the person in it.


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