Photography, empathy, and "the imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others"
Whose dead bodies do we see, and why do we need to see them?
Coffin Ban, by Tami Silicio
What I’m Writing
CNN: Anthony Bourdain Saw the Humanity in All of Us. This, on the remarkable legacy of Anthony Bourdain, is from a year ago, but I’m re-sharing in honor of Bourdain Day. “What truly made Bourdain special was his fundamental desire to connect with people, and the fundamental openness he brought to that effort. It's easy to travel -- and to make a travel show -- where you check off the boxes: the great art museums, the masterful architecture, the tallest whatever or biggest something else. Bourdain eschewed all of that in favor of something more penetrating and democratic: how people all over the world use food to bond, to express their creativity, to nurture their loved ones, to carry forward tradition and memory, and to indulge in new experiences. Touching on the near-universal pleasure of eating allowed those of us watching to explore the world a little differently through Bourdain.”
NBC: Trump sexual assault accusations by E. Jean Carroll met with shrugs because they're so shockingly normal. Why didn’t Carroll report the rape? Why didn’t she speak out sooner? Because of the utter normalization of abuse, entitlement and exploitation over her life and in this age. The same reason, in other words, that Donald Trump is still in the White House.
Why didn't E. Jean Carroll speak out sooner about Trump? Look around. The men and women who say that Carroll is a liar or a crazy person or simply unreliable because she didn't speak out about this sooner are someone's brother, sister, husband and/or wife. They may be related to, and even profess to love, someone who has been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted (statistically, probably several someones). If you saw your loved ones and community members talking about all these "lying" women accusing the President of misconduct, would you speak out if you or someone you knew experienced harassment, assault or rape? The kind of attack that Carroll is under, and the total lack of accountability that the GOP has granted the President, are part of a broader conspiracy of male dominance and impunity that keeps women silent.
What I’m Reading
This whole newsletter will not be about E. Jean Carroll and the rape accusations against Donald Trump — although, let’s pause to note that a woman has leveled a credible accusation of rape against the president, and so maybe everything should be about this right now — but per usual, Jia’s perspective is crucial. When Trump was elected, many of us anticipated the hardening of our own hearts. Now that it’s happened, we aren’t quite sure what to do with it. Jia writes, “It has felt impossible, in the Trump era, to hope even for a second that our governing systems will operate on any standard of morality. What we have instead is a standard of consistency. If the President had ever convincingly espoused ideas of respect for people who are not like him, or of equal rights for women, it’s possible that he would be held accountable for his actions. Instead, he promised mass campaigns of cruelty against undocumented immigrants, and he is delivering. He said that he grabbed women by the pussy, and many women—twenty-two, so far—explained that, yes, he did that, or something like it, to them. Carroll’s essay—exceptional, devastating, decades in the making—has made me consider how hard it is to understand right away that you’ve been exhausted into submission, especially when submission and endurance feel inextricable. It’s reminded me of how high I’ve let my own hideosity bar get lately, and also of the fact that no one can lower it again but me.”
The View From Here
On the front page of the New York Times today there is this photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his baby girl Valeria drowned in the Rio Grande as they tried to migrate to the United States. The photo doesn’t just highlight the difficulties of migration; in context, it indicts an indefensible U.S. policy called “metering,” which only allows a tiny number of people to apply for asylum each day. According to the AP, “a shelter director said only about 40 to 45 asylum interviews were being conducted in Matamoros each week, while somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1,700 names were on a waiting list.” A great many people are trying to migrate the “right way,” as Trump and the GOP demands. But Trump’s immigration policies prevent them from doing even that. And so some decide they can’t wait anymore, and take the risky journey across the water.
The photo went viral on social media yesterday, and much of what I saw noted its power, and the horror it forced its viewer to grapple with.
A few dissenting voices, though, argued that the photo was exploitative. United We Dream, an excellent youth-led immigrants rights organization, tweeted, “Please out of respect do not share these images which may cause the family much pain and it is also triggering for many of those in our communities.” Others said that a photo of dead bodies would never have made the news if the bodies were white.
These questions about who we show and how and why and when are being raised more and more often, and that’s a good thing. It’s a tough conversation, and there are very real questions of race, place and inequality; who is doing the looking, who is doing the photographing, and who is being photographed? How do we balance newsworthiness with humanity? How do we take photographs that offer subjects dignity but that don’t gloss over the true awfulness of a situation?
I will say, first, that anyone who thinks they have a perfect answers to these complicated questions is kidding themselves.
I will also say that I don’t think “it’s triggering” or “the family didn’t consent” or “it will cause people pain” can be the standards by which journalists make decisions about which images to capture and publish.
It is true that there are photo editors making decisions about whose bodies we show, and some bodies seem to be off-limits, or at least very limited — like those of U.S. soldiers, for example (although even to this there are some notable exceptions). For almost 20 years, photographers were barred from even shooting photographs of American flag-draped coffins of soldiers. This was not a decision made by journalists, obviously, but it had a profound impact on what viewing audiences could see of war and conflict.
When dead people in a photo strike a photo editor as “foreign,” it seems like there is less attention paid to questions like, “has the family been notified?” When photographs showing the dead and suffering are primarily taken in places that are far away (physically or psychically) from the intended audience, and primarily feature people who are assumed to not resemble kin of the intended audience, this can create a gap, not bridge it: The net effect is a sense that horrific and intractable suffering happens over there to those people. You feel bad seeing these photos, yes. You want the bad situation to change. But there is often a dead “we” who we don’t show as readily (especially in war), and a dead “they” who we do. This can reinforce, not break down, that barrier between “we” and “they.” At the same time, if you are an American, you do live in a nation of relative peace and security. Suffering is not equally imaged, but nor does suffering occur equally. And yet it’s tough to argue that we image these things equally even where death and suffering happen, and even where images would be relevant and newsworthy.
“Publishing some images while suppressing others sends the message that the visible bodies are somehow less consequential than the bodies granted the privilege of privacy,” Sarah Sentilles wrote last year in the New York Times. She starts out by discussing dead American soldiers and dead Americans more generally, photographs of whom are so seldom published. And then she notes that, actually, there are Americans whose dead bodies we increasingly see in photographs and videos: Black Americans, killed by police officers.
Many people who criticize the publication of photographs of black and brown bodies argue those photos should not have been published, that dignity and humanity demands coverage that is less immediate and less explicit. Sentilles draws a different conclusion. “I worry every day that my response to the pictured suffering of others is inadequate, inappropriate, that I turn away too soon, go on with my daily life, absorbed by my to-do lists and my own pressing concerns,” she writes. “But my failure as a viewer is exacerbated by our media’s practice of keeping some bodies protected from view while other bodies — be they victims of bombings or natural disasters or police violence — are visible everywhere. My students were right: Hiding some bodies affects how other bodies are seen. But if we were allowed to see all our dead, if we were to stop obscuring some bodies while revealing others, then photographs might be able to teach us to become better viewers, better grievers, responsible and accountable for the injuries we see.”
When commentators criticize American and European news outlets for more readily publishing photos of suffering black and brown people — dead and alive — that isn’t something they’re making up.
But it’s also more complicated than “we don’t see photos of dead white people.” We do. There was the front-page photo of a fireman cradling a bloody infant in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. During the Balkan war, a great many grisly photos of dead bodies appeared in newspapers and magazines. Photos of the Malaysia Air crash in eastern Ukraine showed dead bodies among the wreckage.
Still, we draw lines, especially when the tragedy hits closer to home, and especially when the bodies imaged are white. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, a photo of a severed hand appeared in the New York Daily News; it was met with great outrage. Images of people jumping from the Twin Towers ran in a few newspapers, but typically just once; those photos were also deemed too sensitive to print again, if they were printed at all. A photo taken at the Boston Marathon after the terrorist bombing showed a man with his legs blown off; most publications cropped out the most graphic bits, but a few showed the whole thing. An extended debate ensued.
There are no hard and fast rules here. Are grisly photos always inappropriate? No, I don’t think so, although obviously gratuitous gore is unnecessary — but my definition of “gratuitous” is, like yours and every photo editor’s, subjective. Should families find out that a loved one is dead via an AP photograph? No, of course not, and publications should take great care with what they put on social media, especially during breaking news events. But it also puts us down a dangerous path to suggest that we need next-of-kin consent to show photographs of the dead. It is even more dangerous to say that there should be limitations on what photographers can shoot, especially in public places, or on what newspapers can publish.
The conversation that’s happening in the United States right now, about this particular photograph, is not one about “can” but “should.” This is a crucial distinction. I want to add, though, that the United States has freer press laws than most countries on earth, and these conversations are not happening only within U.S. borders. In other contexts, photographs that were deemed offensive for showing the dead have had hugely negative impacts on press freedom. How we talk about this, and how we understand the ways in which these conversations translate (or don’t) outside of the United States and the First Amendment, matters a lot. I’ve had these conversations in places where there is no base assumption that the government won’t interfere with the a free press (most recently, but not only, in Pakistan and Kenya). Controversial images have been pretexts for government entities to crack down on journalists and limit their work. And I’ve been stunned and saddened to see other journalists and people who ostensibly care about media freedom go along with those restrictions (or at least fail to speak out against them) because they, too, found the catalyzing image offensive.
In order to have these conversations productively, we have to be in alignment on the question of “can” versus “should”: Can a news outlet publish whatever photos they deem newsworthy must be a question we all answer in the affirmative. Only then can we concern ourselves with the question of whether they should. In an American context, we are talking in this space of the “should.” But it’s good to be mindful of the fact that conversations on social media cross borders, and this context is very, very far from universal.
Journalists everywhere exist not just in tension with those in power, but sometimes with our subjects as well. It is our job to portray people with dignity and humanity, but it is also the reality that many people in our stories and in our images are not going to like how they are portrayed, especially if they are being portrayed in one of the worst moments of their lives. Is our obligation to our subjects? Or is it to something bigger, something related to truth-telling, which can be painful for those whose lives, quotes and images we use to illustrate a larger story?
A popular argument in favor of publishing shocking photos is that “people need to see these images in order to care.” But it is not an easy 1:1 of “people see difficult images and things change;” nor is is true that people must see difficult images in order for things to change. A plethora of heart-tugging images can numb us, not motivate us; it can make us feel as though our empathy is enough. Susan Sontag writes in her incredible Regarding the Pain of Others that “The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers—seen close-up on the television screen— and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”
What Sontag calls “photography as shock therapy” does not actually work in a direct way: It is not the case that if only you can fully and viscerally capture the true horror of something, that horror will be fully understood and, as a result, ended. By only showing some of the dead, Sontag says, the assumption of our safety and their perpetual suffering is reinforced, not obliterated.
But the images we capture can in fact shift the decisions those in power make; they can change the public discourse; they can be part of what eventually leads to change. It virtually never happens that those decisions and that discourse changes immediately, that images are the direct catalyst for an end to wrongdoing. There are a great number of things at play in the push-pull of history.
It’s undeniable, though, that images are one of those things, both in setting us on a particular course and in solidifying how we recall and understand past events. There are a number of singular, iconic photos we remember. Those that put a face on the AIDS epidemic. That imaged the toll of the Great Depression. That captured the brutality and the futility of the war in Vietnam, and what happened when that war came home to America. They showed the utter inhumanity and the terror of ethnic cleansing. They demanded our attention to famine in Somalia and Yemen. And that showed the flesh-and-blood reality of our debates on migration, and what happens when prosperous nations try to close their borders to people in need.
Did any one of these photographs solve any of these problems? Did they end crises or famine or war or genocide? Do any of these photographs even tell the whole truth about an event? No. Were they — are some of them, right now as I type this — an influential part of a much more complex and interlocking series of events, decisions and perspectives that do shift the world’s trajectory, even if only by a millimeter? Yes.
But perhaps a more interesting question is this: If these photos taken of people in moments of immense suffering changed nothing, would their publication still be worthwhile?
Does a photograph have to contribute to change in order to be valuable?
My answer to the first question is yes, and to the second question, no.
Let’s not get too sentimental about photography. Photographs are true, and they are not true. They capture something as it is, but within a frame — something is cropped out, and something else is chosen. They are limited in they can tell us, the visual equivalent, Sontag writes, of a soundbite. What you see in a photo is real, and yet a photograph can radically mislead us from reality. During the last presidential elections in Kenya, a whole bunch of publications illustrated their stories with images of a raging pyre in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, a suggestion of red-hot violence. On Facebook, a journalist friend of mine posted a wider shot of the scene: A half-dozen photographers, all swarmed around the one burning pile of tires.
Photographs — not all photographs, but most great photographs — translate the true into something beautiful. There are a great many images of people suffering or starving or migrating or dying. The ones that gain status as “iconic” and the ones we award are also the ones that are visually appealing. They may capture something horrific, but they are visually balanced, even in color and texture, shot and cropped in a way that our eye understands and that we see in other forms of art and design. Maybe they evoke a famous painting or religious iconography or previous photo; there is a reason photography is professionalized, why great photographers have more than just the physical ability to use a hand-held machine.
There is something about the image of Óscar and Valeria that feels rawer, realer, less balanced and less stylized. It evokes the photo of Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach. Perhaps these photos feel more resonant in an era in which we are so visually stimulated, when the quality of the images we see on television, in movies, in magazines and elsewhere has never been so high, and when at the same time we all carry cameras, document our lives, and share (often heavily edited) photos many times a day. We are inundated with the visually perfect, and simultaneously have the tools to make our own images at a rate never before seen in human history. It feels in some ways wrong to bring up pornography in this context, but what we watch in secret tells us so much about what we crave. And what the metrics gathered by porn sites tell us is that we increasingly crave imagery that looks “amateur,” that seems DIY, that is not airbrushed and stylized and in HD. At a time when so much of what we take in is exquisite and aesthetically flawless, what hits us in our most animal place is what is the least artful.
I suspect that the photograph of Óscar and Valeria resonates in part because, although it was taken by a professional photographer and is an incredible photo, it also looks like something someone could have shot off the cuff with an iPhone. At this moment in human history and technology, that resonates because it feels so immediate and so real. But that same rawness is part of what I suspect, for many people, tips it over into the exploitative.
Fair-minded and well-meaning people are going to disagree on the appropriate use of imagery, especially of the suffering, especially of the dead. As it gets easier to share photos across borders, and as borders themselves are less meaningful, these questions will only get more complicated by differing perspectives, mores, and cultures.
For me, the interests that demand balancing include purpose, truth, harm and context. What purpose does an image serve? Can it show us, visual creatures that we are, something that we should see, and that will not be as compellingly described with words alone? We know that visual storytelling has a very different impact than just text — does the photo tell the truth, both about a particular event and about something larger and crucial to understand visually? How should potential harm in publishing it — harm to a viewer, to the subject, to the people who know and love the person in the photo as a person and not a “subject” — be considered and measured? What taboos are at play, and are those worth upholding, or are they worth breaking? Is the person in the photo identifiable, and how does that factor in? Is it graphic or gory? Is it sensational — and what’s the line between necessarily shocking and unnecessarily lurid? Are we contextualizing both the person in the photo and the photograph itself?
That context, for me, is the most important. Photos do not always speak for themselves. An image of a starving person doesn’t tell us why that person has gone so brutally hungry for so long. A picture of gun to a man’s head doesn’t necessarily tell us who’s holding it and why. A photograph of dead bodies in a river or a dead child on a beach doesn’t tell us anything about the more powerful forces that compelled those people to go into the water in the first place.
Images can’t do this — by definition, they can only show, not tell. Which images editors pick, and how those images are contextualized, is part of bridging the divide between voyeurism and understanding. Part of why I think the AP photograph of Óscar and Valeria was published responsibly is that the AP did this: They published it in tandem with an article about a specific and dangerous U.S. policy that restricts asylum claims and forces vulnerable people into impossible choices.
There are no perfect answers here, no clear guidelines on what to publish and when and how. But I see a lot of positive movement on these questions. As our newsrooms diversify, and as the journalistic world becomes more even — as it’s not just Western photographers hired by Western publications, photographing far-away events — we will see a breaking down of who we understand and image as “we” and “they.” Social media is far from an equalizer, and it’s not exactly a democratic medium, but it does put journalists in direct contact with our readers and viewers (for better or worse). As that readership grows in an increasingly interconnected, literate and online world, that feedback will change, as will perspectives of those who publish the words we read and the images we see.
I wish I could say “yes, publish more photos of suffering, just be less precious about publishing photos of white Americans” or “publishing this photograph was wrong and exploitative.” I write a lot of op/eds; I find discomfort in the in-between spaces and the I-don’t-know spaces. I think this photograph is powerful. I’m also choosing not to embed it in this newsletter. I think it’s an important image that should have been published, and that it was published responsibly. I also have immense respect for many people who think otherwise. My only (exceptionally trite) conclusion is just that the conversation this photograph has forced is as important as the photo itself.
Thanks for reading.