Political power of photography
Today we know more about human suffering in the world than ever before. Information conveyed by images on the injustices of the world streams over us whenever we open a newspaper, a web browser or the television. As social media now enables us to follow dramatic events of crisis areas in real time, hopes have been raised that the new technical means of mediation would enable us to encounter suffering of others in a new and a more powerful way, and that we would thus react to the suffering of others more profusely both as individuals and as a humankind. But do images really have the power to change the way in which we relate to the pain of others?
The idea that visual representations of the pain are at the core of awakening empathy towards distant suffering is an old one. Pictures have been hoped to narrow the moral gap between the distant viewer and the suffering object in the image ever since the Age of Enlightenment.
The visual sharing of the experience of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 through prints and engravings passed on from hand to hand has often been named as the turning point in an awakening to the idea of a universal human community and the need to protect humanity. Pictures depicting the suffering of others have also been seen central in the abolition fight. The noble presumption was that if people only knew – and could witness it through their eyesight – they would take action.
Later the invention of photography was believed to revolutionize the way in which we relate to distant suffering and, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, it was assumed that enabling people to visualize horrors would make the world a better place. Pictures of the Holocaust are claimed to have affected the birth of universal human rights and the institutionalization of protection of humanity. Televised images of the Vietnam War are said to have turned the sentiments of western citizens against the war and to have had an impact on its ending. The real-time mediation of images of crises created the concept of ‘CNN effect’, a notion that rapidly spreading images causing public outrage would also force decision makers into action to prevent atrocities.
Advancements in producing and mediating images have been accompanied with the thought that the possibility to see images of horror more extensively and directly can build a more humane world. The pictures amateur photographers take in crisis areas and post in social media have been seen as a new means to close up the distance between suffering people and the viewer. But do new methods of transmitting images change the way in which we encounter the pain of others?
IMAGES OF THE SYRIA CRISIS AND THE AGENDA OF POWER
Due to social media images, the war in Syria has been visually perceivable to us more strongly than any other war thus far. On 21 August 2013 a chemical attack was launched in Damascus, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilian and child victims. The huge number of rapidly spreading brutal images testified of a horrendous mass murder. The images, which were initially posted in social media, caused widespread shock as they were circulated into our view by the news machinery of Western mainstream media. They soon became the hottest topic of the day also in Western statements on international politics and the horror images were used as legitimation in reasoning for a planned western-led “humanitarian military intervention” against the Syrian regime. The pictures taken by amateur photographers were seen as legal evidence of the actual events and leaders in the Western world argued that the pictures depicted such horrendous suffering that this time stronger actions than mere words were called for. Forceful political speeches on the need for military intervention proven by the pictures were however soon abandoned in favor of a diplomatic solution.
Although faith in the positive power of images seems to have been common throughout human history, research into the subject has more pessimistically showed that the potential of images has often been exaggerated. Using images of pain to legitimize actions serving political interests has become general practice. But, as it turned out in the case of Syria, images have not been seen to pressurize decision makers into serious political actions if economic and geopolitical interests are not in line with the story told by the images. In high-level politics images only have power if they suit the agenda of power. On the other hand, still today in the era of social media, we encounter images of suffering mostly through mainstream media. Mainstream media are always geographically and culturally divided; they function as a part of the ideological machinery of their given culture, and often support the dominant beliefs of the surrounding society. Mainstream media usually frame the images according to the prevailing spirit and power politics, and are thus rarely able to radically change our perceptions on the surrounding world.
DENIAL OF SUFFERING IN OUR LOCAL ENVIRONMENT
Suffering does not always occur thousands of kilometers away nor does its alleviation require international interventions. We may also often encounter suffering occurring geographically close to us through images. Like political decision makers, we also, as individuals, react to seeing suffering with a certain degree of denial. It in fact appears that technical development and new methods of mediating images do not play a key role in encountering suffering, and the same tendency to turn a blind eye extends from international and state levels to local and individual levels.
For example, images taken by animal rights activists at animal of production farming reveal the suffering of animals in food production of our own society. The aim of the activists is to awaken us to see the hidden violence in our local environment and the unsustainable way in which the production is carried out, and to reflect on our own consumption practices. At times these images break into publicity and result in heated citizen debate in current affairs programs on television. The animal production industry defends with assurances of high ethical standards and the producers launch counterattacks by presenting pretty images of the realities of animals raised to become food.
In a legal environment that accepts the abuse of animals charges are often pressed against the photographer revealing the suffering, and posing a threat to the prevailing order. In a short while however the public interest in the topic fades away, soon again eating meat becomes easy, and the lawful production of mass suffering continues around us same as before. We turn a blind eye. When a charitable organization displayed billboard pictures of demented people in their nightgowns wandering around lost, in order to stimulate discussion on the state of eldercare in Finland, the public was appalled. The shock wasn’t however due to the poor state of eldercare but because the staged pictures were too painful to look at, disturbing. We often tend to deny things that we find troubling and chose to look the other way, “mind our own business”.
When we reject an image that disturbs us or even write it off as offensive, we need not think about helpless older people amongst us or intolerable negligence in our society in the face of which we feel helpless. It’s easier that way.
FROM DENIAL TO EMPATHY
The problem with reacting to the pain of others appears to be, aside from calculative politics, mainly embedded in the human nature itself: Even though in today’s world we would actually be able to see all possible suffering, do we want to see it? And moreover, do we want to do anything about it? Do photographs aiming at revealing suffering and creating empathy have power?
Stanley Cohen reflects on this tendency of denial towards suffering and atrocities in his book States of Denial (2001). According to Cohen, even when we are aware of the suffering of others it is typical or even natural for us to block out horrors and to act as if we were unaware of it. This applies on both governmental and individual levels. It may be too difficult to openly face disturbing, threatening or unordinary information, so we brush it aside and shut it off.
It does seem that images or new ways of encountering them, no matter how numerous they are, cannot in themselves awaken a lacking interest for the suffering of others. As Susan Sontag notes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), photographs cannot create a moral position or change the way in which we relate to the world. She furthermore argues that that while photographs are solely not enough, they can however reinforce an existing mindset of empathy. Although the tendency to turn a blind eye is a strong and lasting part of human nature, so is the need and desire to help those who are in need. From time to time viewers are awakened in the face of an image, become aware and may sometimes even take action. In this respect, an image that speaks of violence sometimes has the power to challenge prevailing beliefs, overcome ignorance, reinforce the feeling of solidarity towards those who suffer that lies deep down in human nature. Thus, images of pain may awaken our dormant sense of empathy and make us call out for a better world. This is why photographs depicting the suffering of others need to be shown, seen and made.
The writer is a visiting Research Fellow in the Global Security research program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and is currently finalizing her doctoral dissertation in political history on the use of images in international politics.