This is part six in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.
When a photograph of human suffering speaks to the mythic, to the general and to the poetic, it activates affect within the viewer that has no obvious connection to any effective action or remedy. This can work to insulate the viewer from the trauma. It is entirely possible to simultaneously feel compassion for the subjects of rendered accounts of humanitarian suffering while behaving politically in opposition to them.
There is a kind of political equivalent of Newton’s Law of Motion at work--for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When viewing images of death, suffering and deprivation from places, cultures, and classes that are removed or remote from the audience, we are looking into the lives of the ‘other.’ By seeing them as poor, deprived and/or suffering, we, the viewers, are placed in a position of privilege and power. The work reciprocally points back to our own relative affluence, health and security.
For the western audience, exposure to these images creates two effects simultaneously. While they potentially evoke compassion, they also reciprocally reaffirm our relative economic and physical security in relationship to the subjects. The logic of this exchange is written right into their distribution strategy. The images are not made for the edification of the subjects themselves, or for the makers of the photographs, as would be the case in tourist photography, but are made specifically to be sent to an audience that has a significant advantage over the subjects in terms of wealth, power and security.
The net political impact of these images on that audience is determined by a complex interaction between how much empathy or compassion is evoked in the viewer and where the viewer is located by the photograph in a political relationship with the subject. Images that emphasize the mythic over the political, while they may evoke compassion, tend to avoid the specific viewer/subject relationship and, by emphasizing the general and poetic, steer the audience away from the real world political realities and towards an inner unspecific experience of trauma or suffering, one that has the potential to dislocate the images from their sources/subjects and use them as a kind of entertainment. The mythic too frequently serves to steer the audience away from the systemic roots of these problems towards a general aesthetic experience that, while moving, has no obligation to generate any political pressure that drives realized political change on a level that has a hope of impacting and improving the conditions of the subjects in a specific way.
Continue reading with Part Seven.