Quite a large part of me didn’t want to do this exercise because there are some images I’ve had such strong feelings about and think were wrong that I don’t want to publicise them by inserting images or providing links. I think part of it is the intent behind the photograph being taken or if I perceive that advantage is being taken of someone vulnerable, particularly a child.
I had very conflicting feelings about the images of the little three year old boy, Alan Kurdi who drowned, along with his mother and five year old brother, when his family, with others, were attempting to reach the island of Kos after escaping from Syria. Twelve people died in total including five children. There were several photographs taken and what disturbed me was that in one of them a policeman was standing over the body of the little boy and it looked as though he was taking a photograph. Obviously someone else was also photographing that scene. I accept that this little boy was being used as a representative for all the suffering that has been caused by this conflict, lives lost, futures cut short but it seemed so disrespectful to me. The justification for publishing these photographs was that what happened should force authorities, countries to get together and form a plan to tackle the refugee crisis. This child drowned in 2015 and still nothing has been done.
There was another photograph, again of a small Syrian boy, five years old this time, pulled from rubble in Aleppo after a regime airstrike in August 2016. Covered in dust from head to toe, injured and sitting alone in a chair, looking so dazed. I felt so angry that he was being photographed in such a state instead of being comforted. The photograph is a still from a video which shows him being rescued, carried into the ambulance, placed on the seat and then his rescuer walking away from him so that someone else could take the photograph. This photograph and video were in a Guardian newspaper online article which also contained another image from Twitter. A Telegraph reporter had photographed the little boy after treatment – bruised and bloodied with a bandage round his head. The photographs went viral. Again nothing has changed.
I’ve read quite a lot recently about digitising atrocity and the role of the photojournalist. Peggy Phelan’s essay ‘Atrocity and Action: the Performative Force of the Abu Ghraib Photographs”(2012) very much drew me . I won’t go into detail here because she takes a different, more philosophical approach concerning the way in which we, as viewers, of images such as the Abu Ghraib photographs respond; disavow, become defensive, angry. Her reasoning is complex, introducing the concept of the “….. given-to-be-seen and the blind spot that are central to seeing a photograph” and I want to return to the essay in future to re-read and digest more fully. Phelan begins with the questions posed by such photographs; the actions portrayed within them and also the viewer’s potential action – “What can I do to fix this? How can I limit this atrocity?”
PS Ariella Azoulay wrote about “The Civil Contract of Photography” (2007). Azoulay wants action not empathy and believes we don’t know how to look at such images. This is a note to access the book.