Photography of agony and the western gaze
By Kira Roybal
On September 2nd of this year, images of Alan Kurdi, the young boy whose body was found washed up on the shore of Bodrum in Turkey, began to circulate. Journalists from across the news media, as well as politicians and human rights group leaders, tweeted and retweeted the photograph, captured by Doğan News Agency’s Nilufer Demir, which shows the three-year-old lying face down in the sand and salty foam of the beach.
Hugh Pinney, the Vice President of Getty Images, commented in TIME that “the reason we’re talking about it after it’s been published is because it breaks a social taboo that has been in place in the press for decades: a picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published.”
That’s not to say that Alan Kurdi was the first published child casualty. In 2014 New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks published his account of the attack on Gaza along with the photographs he captured—including those of four Palestinian youths killed on the beach. Photographs of children in agony also have a relatively long history: Nick Ut’s photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm bombing; Kevin Carter’s of a vulture watching a starving, emaciated child in Sudan; and James Nachtwey’s of children struggling in Romanian orphanages.
What all the photographs of violence inflicted upon the human body – whether that be through war, famine, social and economic upheaval—have in common is, in the words of art critic and writer John Berger, that “as we look at them, the moment of the other’s suffering engulfs us.” In other words, such images are “arresting” (italics mine). They demand that we pause, stop, freeze; for a period of time, we are disconnected from our own realities and overwhelmed by the immense pain and suffering of others.
What are we—the viewers—to make of such photographs? How are we to respond? The media certainly knew how. Nicholas Jimenez of Le Monde stated, “I’m convinced that until you’ve shown this photograph, you haven’t shown the reality of the crisis.” Max Fisher of Vox, on the other hand, tweeted “I don’t say this to be scoldy or self-righteous or whatever, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with people tweeting photos of dead migrant kids.” Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch noted, “I think for a lot of the public, their first reaction is: ‘This could have been my child.’” But could it really have been? Parents in Western nations may imagine the horror of such agony inflicted upon their own children, but they can rest assured knowing that this will most likely never happen. The discontinuity between the viewer and the subject of the photograph is not erased by sympathy, pity, or sadness.
Going back to the question I posed in the previous paragraph: what are we supposed to make of such photographs? Are they meant to be instructive? (“Look at what’s going on with the rest of the world!”) Are they meant to be moralizing? (“This is the photograph that’s going to end the war!”) Are they meant to call us into action, or leave us paralyzed, knowing that change is often a slow and bitter process so why even bother doing anything? How are we to help those living thousands of miles away from us, unaware of our gazing at their suffering?
There is a story of Socrates’ in Plato’s Republic that tells of a young man’s inner struggle between disgust and fascination at the sight of battered human bodies:
Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight[!]”
Certainly there’s something that provokes—invites—us to look, some sense of mystery or discovery of a scene never before seen. The first time I had heard of Ernst Friedrich’s Kreig dem Kreige! (War Against War!), while reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, I knew that I had to see at least a few of the photographs from the book for myself. This is an album of photographs compiled from German military and medical archives that depicts the visual story of the First World War, or as Sontag puts it, “an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation.” I believe I could only glance at about five photographs, and I only looked at one from the “Face of War” section, which shows close-ups of soldiers’ facial wounds. I know not what instrument of war, what poison could have caused skin and tissue to form like that on a wounded young man’s face. I stopped my little investigation after that.
There is something voyeuristic and invasive about passively viewing photographs of this type. In her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag claims that “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have,” which implies that taking a photograph transfers power to the photographer. The subject overwhelmed by war, illness, or economic oppression, opens up, either reluctantly or eagerly, to the power of the camera, as if to say, “This is my story, and if someone doesn’t tell it then no one will ever hear it.” As viewers, in order to prevent baseless voyeurism, we must have a heightened sensitivity to the context surrounding the photographer’s decision to capture the subject and the realities of the circumstance thrown upon them, and a will to help ease the suffering—or at least a will to break the boundaries that prevent us from easing the suffering.
Francisco Goya, the nineteenth century Spanish artist most popularly known for his painting The Third of May, created a series of etchings called The Disasters of War, which documented the atrocities committed by both the French and the Spanish during and after the Napoleonic Wars. The inscriptions he adds to each etching is what truly makes the collection eye-opening, anti-heroic, and modern; this series could be considered a precursor to war photography. One etching states “Yo lo vi” (“I saw this”); another “No se puede mirar” (“One cannot look”); another “Esto es malo” (“This is bad”); and another “Esto es lo peor!” (“That is the worst of it!”). Images, by their very nature and use in society, invite us to look. However, Goya’s etchings and their respective inscriptions lead the viewer to question their voyeurism—to feel a sense of guilt in looking at severed limbs, murder, rape, and torture. This series, like the wide and varied collection of photographs of bodies in agony, is not simply documentation; these images resonate too closely with the moral standards of many people to not be considered a pity, a tragedy, an event to be remembered, or the catalyst for a course of action. To this, Sontag states, “Let the atrocious images haunt us…The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”
“To us, the viewers living in wealthy and powerful countries, such images do not instill fear or a sense of awe within us—as they may have within our ancestors living in ancient towns and villages. Rather, we are overcome with pity and the desire to find a remedy; we as benevolent outsides want to “fix” the place and the people overrun by violence.”
In December of 1971, Bangladesh won its war of independence from Pakistan, and thus began the punishment of Bengalis suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militiamen. On December 18, Mukti Bahiti (the Liberation Army) bayoneted and publicly executed four men accused of murder, rape, and looting. Horst Faas and Michael Laurent of the Associated Press were among the few photojournalists to document the event; they compiled their photographs of the “Death in Dacca” (now Dhaka) and won the World Press Photo award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Many photojournalists believed the execution would not have occurred if photographers were not present. Magnum Photos’ Marc Riboud and United Press International’s Peter Skingley, for instance, refused to attend. Others, like Faas and Laurent, believed it necessary to stay and capture the story. Does the camera, perhaps ironically, encourage violence and suffering? Does it provoke the winner to show off his triumph, knowing that it will make headlines?
To us, the viewers living in wealthy and powerful countries, such images do not instill fear or a sense of awe within us—as they may have within our ancestors living in ancient towns and villages. Rather, we are overcome with pity and the desire to find a remedy; we as benevolent outsiders want to “fix” the place and the people overrun by violence. Perhaps to photograph someone is not only to violate them, but also to take power and autonomy away from them. The subject becomes a victim in need of rescue, the photographer becomes messenger, and the viewers become…well, we just remain as viewers and attempt to make sense of where we, as individuals, fit into the Dhaka executions or the current refugee crisis.
Earlier this semester, I attended the Caochangdi Work Station Performance at the Schwartz Center, which centered around interview footage of the elderly survivors of China’s Great Famine. Very few times had I cried so much in my life. People ate tree bark; mothers were forced to let their children starve to death; millions died in their homes. And I could do nothing about it—this all happened in the past. I experienced a great sense of discontinuity in my life afterwards; I couldn’t completely return to my role as a university student whose worries were grades, social activities, and the Bursar Office—not death by starvation. Perhaps I was simply meant to remember the event, to keep it from evaporating into the back corners of history. Why did I even feel that I needed to do anything?
It’s quite difficult to let “victims” die without recognition, without some sort of honor for the time they spent living on Earth. I could not change the past, but at the very least I could understand the survivors’ struggles.
The power that is taken from the subjects—the one that evades the viewers—is often passed onto our world leaders. Upon seeing the photographs of the execution in Dacca, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian soldiers aiding the Bengal liberation to prevent such events from occurring again. Once the photograph of Alan Kurdi surfaced, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tone about the refugee situation changed from “We can’t economically sustain this influx of people” to “Refugees are welcome here!”
As for the ordinary, not-politically-powerful person viewing a photograph of agony, John Berger notes:
Confrontation with a photographed moment of agony can mask a far more extensive and urgent confrontation. Usually the wars which we are shown are being fought directly or indirectly in “our” name. What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to confront our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist we have no legal opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name.
In our age of great and widespread violence, we must ask what our government—the government that represents us—is doing to ease the suffering and stop the violence. If we are not satisfied, then why should we allow our government to keep functioning in the same manner that it currently is? Photojournalists and their subjects are asking us to look and to be aware and to do something, so let’s do just that—something, in our own names, that neither Merkel nor Obama nor any other leader would be capable of achieving.