The media is overflowing with photographs of people suffering from famine, diseases, war and exploitation. Photography can be controversial when it depicts vulnerable people in situations which are out of there control. When confronted with these photographs, the ethics of looking at people in pain and suffering is debatable.
“Does photography provide an ideal means of appealing to conscience and provoking compassion or empathy? Or is the circulation of images of people in their moments of need and pain insensitive and exploitative? Does the surfeit of images of atrocity simply numb the viewer, causing what has commonly come to be called “compassion fatigue”? Is it wrong to make art out of other people’s misfortune?” (Szorenyi 2009, p. 93)
The above questions continues to fuel the fire to the ongoing debate about the ethics of photographed suffering. This consumption of photographed suffering can be confronting and complicating to understand. A photograph can affect us emotionally, as a result the victim’s pain in the photograph can be overshadowed by the pain the viewer is feeling. The images below show a four-month-old baby boy being rescued from the rubble of the Nepal earthquake after being buried under a building for 22 hours. The images published by Kathmandu Today, showed the innocent boy covered in dust in the safe arms of a member of the armed forces.
As a viewer of the image, you are overwhelmed with happiness as it’s a miracle the boy survived. But, it’s at the expense and suffering of a young baby who is injured and exhausted. The 2015 Nepal earthquake has killed more than 8,000 people and 2.8 million Nepalese have been displaced (Mullen & Pokharel, 2015). The photograph of the boy suffering shines a light of hope that out of this disaster there is an amazing story of survival.
Sontag argues that photographs have the capacity to move us momentarily but the visual representation of suffering has become clichéd (Butler, 2007). Over the years we have become bombarded by sensationalised photography, as a result the shock factor of a photograph has diminished. Due to the distant proximity to suffering of the natural disaster zone in Nepal, we may feel a sense of hopelessness to help.
The same thing can said about the below video of a buried baby pulled from the rubble of the war torn country of Syria. The video was unethical because once the baby was dug out by the group of men it was paraded and held up like a trophy. For a moment the suffering experienced by the baby became their enjoyment.
The debate around the ethics of photographing people suffering is questionable. However, it’s the photographer’s obligation to act ethically and have the best interest of the person being photographed.
Butler, J 2007, ‘Torture and the ethics of photography,’ Environmental and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 25, no.6, pp. 951-966. <http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1195064.files/16.%20Butler%20Torture%20and%20the%20Ethics%20of%20Photography.pdf>
Flikie, 2015, Taking a Photograph, image, Flikie, viewed 14 May 2015, <http://services.flikie.com/view/v3/android/wallpapers/33576876>
Kathmandu Today, 2015, Baby boy rescued from Nepal earthquake rubble, image, The Guardian, viewed 14 May 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/29/baby-boy-rescued-from-nepal-earthquake-rubble>
Mullen, J & Pokharel, S 2015, Nepal’s latest earthquake: Dozens killed; fears over remote areas, CNN, viewed 14 May 2015, <http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/13/asia/nepal-earthquake/>
Szorenyi, A 2009, ‘Distanced suffering: photographed suffering and the construction of white in/vulnerability,’ Social Semiotics, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 93-109. <https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/handle/2440/58877>