Photographs have a prolific ability to evoke the deepest of memories, inspire the staunchest of non-believers and transform a story of unimaginable hardship into one that provokes change and help.
Today, we are blessed with the media coming to us with information that covers every angle from every inch of the globe. We are bombarded with news stories everywhere we turn – from checking your Facebook news updates whilst on the loo to reading the paper whilst waiting for a coffee.
And now, more than ever, we are connecting with people from all over the world in different time zones and cultures. We are slowly developing an understanding and empathetic view of the world around us. It appears to be a beautiful thing. But do not be mislead by this utopian view of the media, we are also witnessing some of the most barbaric atrocities that we have ever seen.
The unbelievable stories of escape from desecrated cities, the complete and utter chaos caused by environmental tragedies and the narrative of human suffering as individuals flee from the most harrowing and gruesome circumstances are also being transmitted into our lives.
Michal Kimmelman presents a different and somewhat unattractive opinion about how we are not reacting to these poignant images the way we used to:
It was one thing to try to wake humanity up to suffering in the world via photographs from the early years of the last century…when most people saw distant places and learned of faraway disasters through photographs, but it is another thing to try to do so now, when the number of images that flash across television and computer screens diminishes the value of any single image you may see.
It is almost as if each image comes with a needle full of a powerful anaesthetic. We are becoming numb. Numb to the emaciated children, the howling mothers sprawling across bombed streets and the tens of thousands fleeing their homes in the hope of finding a safe place to stay.
But, is it because these atrocities are not happening on our doorsteps, that we are becoming somewhat bored of the same images, the same captions, the same notions, issues, crises? Campbell (2011) suggests that we are only motivated once the suffering is coupled with symbolic proximity.
We incite change when we can relate to it.
It’s a tricky business to get people to look at other people they may have spent a great deal of time trying, consciously or otherwise, not to notice (Kimmelman, 2001)
When the controversial image of a young Syrian refugee who washed up dead on a Turkish beach sparked great debate and outrage, we began to notice.
We thought of our children and we immediately put ourselves in that family’s position. However right or wrong that may have been, we began to realise the human cost of this epidemic. It was no longer about the numbers, the statistics, the enlarged images of tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes with headlines slurring lies. It was a young boy, in a red t-shirt, who so tragically lost his life in the hope of finding a safer home.
As Ingrid Sischy an art critic and writer stated in the New York Times (Kimmelman, 2001, p.2),
Beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal
The image – however opposed to it you may be – worked in a sense as it reignited a tired debate over the dispersion of Syrian refugees. It was something that was not beautiful. It was raw, poignant and extremely harrowing. It brought it home for all of us. It put a name to a crisis. And names make individuals.
It is obvious that there is a huge gap between our heightened awareness and our limited response to incite change.We need to start putting names to these crises, not a photograph that is black and white and so artistically done that we cannot connect on the simplest of emotional levels. We need to notice.
Campbell, D, 2001, ‘The problem with regarding the photograph of suffering as ‘pornography’,https://www.david-campbell.org/2011/01/21/problem-with-regarding-photography-of-suffering-as-pornography/
Kimmelman, M, 2001, ‘Photography review; Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful?’ The New York Times, p.1-4, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/13/arts/photography-review-can-suffering-be-too-beautiful.html?pagewanted=all