Viewer or Voyeur?

THE ETHICS OF LOOKING AT THE SUFFERING OF OTHERS

Does this image make you cringe? Make you want to look away, or make you want to look more? You’re not alone, this is a very human reaction to viewing the suffering of others.

War_Saigon_immolat_2709757k This photo was taken in 1964 by photographer Michael Brown, of a monk in Saigon after self-immolation in order to protest the Vietnam war and became an iconic anti-war image.

When we look at images of war, famine, and death. We are often shocked and horrified after all that is often the point of the image, to gain a reaction from the viewer. Often our first reaction to images like this is to look away. The morality of looking at others suffering is somewhat fraught. To look at another’s suffering, another death, is to take something personal and make it excruciatingly public. Perhaps this is why we often feel the need to look away.

But should we be able to look away. Photographs tell us stories, they allow us to bear witness to many of the horrific things happening in the world. But crucially is bearing witness enough? Is that the true purpose of looking at the suffering of others? Is it only to acknowledge the suffering or should it inspire us to do something about it? Another moral grey area when viewing images of suffering is to ask ourselves if the image exploits its subject. Has the subject been able to give permission for this very public use of something so personal? The use of images that shock us is often ultimately to sell stories, to drive an agenda, whether that agenda be of the photographer or the publisher. Images tell a story and every story comes with a perspective, but does the photographers framing truly represent what the subject is feeling or is there a manipulation involved.

When a white photographer goes to a refugee camp in Somalia, are they not taking a photo of what they believe the suffering should look like, offering a very different frame then that of the sufferer or the subject of the photograph, and is this therefore an accurate depiction of that suffering? Is the guilt we feel looking at the photo enough to justify the potential exploitation of the victim?

This video discusses the experiences of photojournalists in taking photographs of war and suffering and how they view their work, and the purpose of the images they create.

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One Response to Viewer or Voyeur?

  1. I thought this was a really considered piece on the ethics of viewing suffering. I think yes it is a fraught issue. For the most part I understand where you’re coming from in terms of value of suffering. The empathy and compassion that can be inspired by viewing suffering can have real and valuable implications for society for example the image of the young girl burned by napalm and running through the streets was an image iconic to the anti-war effort. I felt the use of this image was justified as well given that the photographer did intervene and help the girl. I guess that’s a question of intervention, and an ethical responsibility to protect those who are being profited off.

    However at the same time, because images can become decontextualized, they can be used at will to support whatever rhetoric- for example Bibi Aisha on the cover of Time Magazine was used to support the pro-war discourse in the States, claiming that pulling out the troops would allow other women to be harmed. But Aisha was hurt during the time of Western occupation and her story had nothing to do with US intervention at all. Hers was a case of domestic abuse. There’s a kind of ethical responsibility when images of suffering are taken, that they are used genuinely I think. Rather than used in whatever way is seen fit, in this case to bolster the case for US intervention, which may I add, has masqueraded in the past as the liberator of Muslim women in the Middle East.

    Something you don’t mention, but I was reminded of when you mentioned photographers in Somalia, is the rampant white saviour industrial complex in African and Asian nations. It’s like a kind of saviour tourism, with feel good effects for the West, but in it’s nature sustains ongoing cycles of poverty in these regions. And I think part of this are the images that we typically receive of African and Asian nations that are typified with scenes of extreme poverty. It fuels this kind of guilt in the West that manifests in this unsustainable form of aid that is so detrimental to these communities.

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