Why we must see


General Culture, General Photography


A few days after the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated in early April 1945, German civilians from the nearby town of Weimar were made to tour the camp, to see with their own eyes what had happened just a few miles from their homes. On one of these days, photographer Margaret Burke-White was present, to record such a visit (see this link; in the above image, that’s MBW taking a reading with her light meter). Up until the Allies’ armies found the many concentration camps, photographers had covered the war in the usual ways, with the usual imagery. But at the camps, the liberators were staring into an abyss of utter horror, and much to their credit the photographers did not hesitate to record it so that everybody could see. The people of Weimar were made to see. Everybody else, who was not there, was made to see, too - newspapers and magazines all over the world reprinted the photographs taken by Margaret Burke-White and her colleagues.

The other day, after I had featured the work of Isabella Demavlys, a reader emailed me to write

“What is the point of this photography and all photography similar to this? It is shameless.”
“Read about? yes absolutely, but seeing? What was going through the mind of the photographer who was watching a man get stoned to death and actually photographed it happening?”
I’m probably not the best person to write about this; but I thought I might just give it a shot, having not done this before. I’ve noticed that occasionally, reservations such as the one by this particular reader are raised, and I’m not always happy with the responses. Needless to say, I don’t know whether I can do better. But I can try.

I know quoting Susan Sontag is the thing to do when writing these kinds of articles, but I’ll try without. I don’t think I’m smarter than her (that’s very unlikely), but I want to see where I will be getting without using intellectual crutches. Plus, there’s a lot in her writing that I don’t agree with.

Let me start out by writing that I don’t see photography by Margaret Bourke-White (or other photographers) from the concentration camps described as being shameless. Let’s keep that in mind. That said…

First of all, what everybody needs to realize is that many, if not all, of the photographers who record horrendous events experience them more or less the same way we would experience them, if we happened to be there. What was going through the mind of the photographer who was watching a man get stoned to death and actually photographed it happening? Well, the photographer was probably mortified and shocked and sickened just like most people would be. Do I know this for a fact? No, I don’t. But I have reasons for saying that. For example, I had a long conversation with Bruce Haley, who recorded how a man got executed with a knife. The photos are on Bruce’s website, and he writes:

“when he carried out the executions, it was unimaginably savage and shocking - much of the worst of it I did not capture on film…”
I also remember having a long conversation with a photographer who had just come back from Afghanistan. He told me he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder - just like the many soldiers coming home from there.

Of course, you could argue that I just managed to speak to the wrong people. Maybe. But I think the assumption that photographers are just like the rest of us and are reacting in basically just the same ways is a good starting point for debates about photography that deeply disturbs us (see Colin Pantall’s recent post about a debate centered on images of a stoning).

If you still believe that photographers are somehow different beings, just remember what happens when there is an accident: A lot of people will stop to look, and with cell phone cameras so ubiquitous now, a lot of people will take pictures. The recent explosion in what people now call “citizen journalism” points to the fact that photographers aren’t any more “shameless” than the rest of us - which, of course, makes the whole debate a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it? In the end, our aversion to look at horrible images taken by photographers really might just be the discomfort we experience knowing very well that if given the chance we would do the exact same thing, namely to stare in disbelief and horror - and maybe to get our cell phone out to snap a few pictures.

When I see comments like something I read a little while ago, that a photographer taking pictures of a stoning was somehow “collaborating” (it’s in here somewhere), on the surface that’s just absurd, but deep underneath, it points to a nagging guilt: I see something, and I’m not doing anything about it, so I am a part of this (even if I know that being far away means I can’t do anything about it). This is then projected onto the photographer, because that’s the only easy and simple step left: To take all our own guilt and to heap it onto the photographer. Problem mostly solved, and whatever residual guilt is still left over can be channeled into writing angry words about the photographer supposedly collaborating.

But make no mistake: The horror won’t go away if we don’t look. We’re not children any longer. We can’t make things go away by not looking, by pretending they don’t exist. You can entertain yourself philosophically about falling trees and the woods, wondering whether there’s any sounds or whether things are really happening if nobody is there to record it. But in the real world, people are starving to death or are being stoned to death or are being killed as collateral damage by missiles raining from the skies (our missiles) - regardless of whether we look or not.

There is no such thing as an innocence here.

So let’s turn to the idea of Isabella Demavlys’s images (just to use the original example that made my reader email me) being shameless. Are they?

Of course, they are in the same way that pretty much all photography is shameless. That’s not a good approach to the topic.

But to decide about whether they’re shameless or not, we might want to think about the woman who agreed to have her portrait taken, despite her face being horribly mutilated because of what we call a hate crime. Can we imagine what her life must be like? And if we don’t look at her, aren’t we then really collaborating with the person who threw acid into her face, to disfigure her and to cast her out from the world - our world? And by “our world” I truly mean the world that includes us, the survivor of the acid attack, and the attacker.

And what about the women who in the future will be victims of such attacks? By refusing to look, aren’t we also averting our eyes from their fate?

Of course, as individuals we cannot possibly be concerned about each and every injustice in the world, that would be overwhelming (there’s a wonderful article about Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, in the current print edition of the New York Review of Books, which talks about this and a lot more I’m going to indirectly use/apply in the following). But as a society we should be concerned about as many injustices in the world as possible, because the sum of all the different individual contributions and efforts will hopefully result in some real… (may I use this following word, besmirched as it might be by its recent political abuse?) change.

This also means that we need to see all these images that are almost impossible to bear, so that some people in our midst will be moved to act, in whatever way.

But not looking or saying it’s shameless to look… It seems to me that there is more morality involved here than just one. There’s the morality of looking into the face of someone who had acid thrown at her. There’s the morality of all the different efforts that are working hard to prevent such attacks from happening again. There’s the morality of not wanting to look at things like that happening because it’s just too hard. There’s the morality of knowing that no single person can possibly deal with each and every injustice in the world.

It’s a lot to juggle.

To focus just on one, and to pretend that one morality is the only one we need to decide - that I find problematic. And I find it even more problematic to solve the problem by blaming the photographer who, in many cases, risks her or his life to bring us images of all the things that we find so hard to look at.

To say that we want to read, but not see… That just seems like an easy way out. Seeing is not the same as reading. What I read about I can file away, because it is being processed while I take it in. What I see - there is a lot of processing, but there also is the unbearable immediacy. We need to experience that unbearable immediacy. It’s not about a cheap visual thrill - even though certainly, in this day and age it is often used for that. But even though images these days are often misused for the spectacle, that doesn’t mean that we have to toss them aside. We still need to see, and part of that need to see also involves rejecting those who use images for the sheer spectacle, for the ratings, for the profit. That, after all, really is just shameless.

I don’t know whether any of this will convince anyone that we must see. It might , or it might not. I’m sure there are lost of aspects I missed, which means I’ll have to come back and revise what I wrote. I’ve felt for a long time that we had to see, and this post is an attempt to put the feeling into words.

Email me to let me know what I missed, what you think needs to be added, etc.

Related: Jim Johnson on the Ethics of Representation