Oh The Humanity! – Gettin’ Ethical

by evanbaden

This week we take a look at the ethics of photography. Primarily looking at the ethics of photographing suffering. For the weeks reading we look at two authors that have very different views of the issue.

First off is Susan Sontag and her book Regarding the Pain of Others. She reduces a lot of her argument to the fact that she has witnessed so much suffering (through the onslaught of images she sees) that she, as well as much of the population that views these images, has been desensitized to that suffering. The suffering she witnesses no longer affects her the way it once did.

Guy Debord – He's Either Smoking or Drinking in Every Picture I Found

Sontag mentions Guy Debord and his piece The Society of the Spectacle. I find this reference interesting because when I read The Society of the Spectacle last semester I found that a lot of the little arguments he made still apply today to technologies that had not even been fathomed when the piece was written. This reference also made me think immediately of the events of 9/11. I think the media coverage of that particular day goes towards Sontag’s desensitization argument, but it also works another way as well.

On September 11, 2001, news outlets like CNN and FOX and just about any other channel with a camera (or feed) out of New York that day continually had the viewers fixed to the single smoking tower. Then the plane crashing into the second tower. Then both of the towers burning. Then finally, the towers falling. First one, then the other. When there was no more destruction to be witnessed “live” the news outlets turned to the replay. The towers falling were replayed over and over and over. And the footage was not just replayed, but condensed. There was no bread given between each oh those events. They simply showed them one after the other. Over and over. It was like a concentrated version of horror, like a horror movie put in a pot, boiled down to only the death, and with just a sprinkle of ominous commentary.

While this had the effect of desensitization, it also made the event understandable to the audience. A common description by people that have witnessed a horrific event is that it was as if they were in a movie witnessing the event. Recently, that has been turned around and it has been theorized that people can now only understand and come to grips with severely tragic events if they are dramatized and put together as if they were a movie. Just take a look at any coverage of prolonged horrific events in the news media. It is turned into a narrative, with photos, videos, interviews, and commentary. All of this is to distill the horror and make it understandable to mainstream viewers.

Azoulay has a different take on the idea of photographing suffering or horror (and one which I was much more interested in, maybe because I have heard the Sontag argument over and over and over – I’m desensitized). It is one that I think makes more sense to me. Sontag’s reading I think is too simplified for such a complicated topic.

The Photograph as a record

Photography has the ability, unlike any other media before it, to record events. While there are a number of considerations that can lead to a specific reading of an image, it is important to remember that the photograph records – it is up to the viewer to interpret what has been recorded. About this notion, Azoulay says:

no photographer, even the most gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph. Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image.

So both the photographer and the person that they photograph will have an impact on the image that is created. Which in theory means that it is impossible for a photographer to go out into the world and make photographs (at least the kind that are being referred to) by themselves. I would go further and say that it is not only the photographer and photographed that are responsible for the image, but the viewer as well (as Azoulay would say later). If we are like Sontag and simply “close our eyes” we have done a disservice not only to the photographer but to the photographed and the meeting and political circumstance that resulted in the image before us. As Azoulay goes on to note, it is our civic duty, as citizens of humanity, to use the photograph to question how we as a people are ruled by our elected (or not) powers. She says:

[While] the photograph bears the seal of the photographic event…a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation [as Sontag would have us believe]…The civil spectator has a duty to employ that skill the day [he/]she encounters photographs of those injuries – to employ it in order to negotiate the manner in which she and the photographed are ruled.

Captain Jonathan Walker

I think the perfect example of this is the photograph The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker by Southworth and Hawes. Here is an image of a hand with the letters SS (for “slave stealer”) branded into his skin. While this is just a photograph, it was used and disseminated to create a wider awareness of the greater problem. Azoulay says:

The photographic act initiated by Walker did not challenge the penalty that had already been seared into his flesh. The challenge was of another type, including three dimensions: to the content of the court ruling, according to which the assistance that Walker provided to seven human beings to escape slavery was a criminal act; to the sable meaning of the punishment, part of which was manifested through inscribing a mark of shame on the body; and to the boundaries defining the community authorized to reinterpret the court ruling.

Even in the very beginning, the presence of the idea of the photographic record as a way to not only record an event or artifact in a believable way but to attempt to realize social change existed.


Welcome to Gaza

Azoulay seems to be interested much more in the politics surrounding a certain image, especially the idea of citizenship and civic duty and all that those words mean.  Azoulay sees Sontag and Barthes looking at photographs the wrong way. She says, “They threaten to seal the photographs within a protective shield that will turn the photographed people into evidence that something ‘was there.’” Barthes and Sontag are viewing the photographs as if the photographed people and the events pictured within have been lost to the past, as if they no longer exist except in photograph form, but that is not always the case. Azoulay goes on to say:

When these photographs are watched, not looked at, when they are read both out of and into the space of the political relations instated by photography, they seem – conversely – to testify to the fact that the photographed people were there. When the assumption is that not only were the photographed people there, but that, in addition, they are still present there at the time I’m watching them, my viewer of these photographs is less susceptible to becoming immoral.

Anat Saragusti

Sontag and Barthes, with their arguments, reduce the importance of the person in the photograph. They turn that person into an object, an artifact that becomes “evidence that something ‘was there.’” I think that kind of thinking is what allows us as viewers to aestheticize those in the images, and thus brings up the issues that Sontag grapples with. However, when we do as Azoulay says, and remember that in many of the images of suffering that we see, the suffering – the struggle – did not end with the press of the shutter, it continues on. Remembering this is important because then larger issues about the events surrounding an image (events that in many instances still continue to be perpetrated) will become a larger part of the discussion of the image. Azoulay continues on to say, “The Civil Contract of Photography is an attempt to anchor spectatorship in civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there,” toward dispossessed citizens who, in turn, enable the rethinking of the concept and practice of citizenship.”


Initially when we see someone suffering in an image, then see that image hung in a gallery and aestheticized (an consequently sold for what sometimes seems ridiculous sums of money), we think of exploitation of those pictured by the photographer, gallery, and viewer. However, I think this is too simplified, too easy of an explanation of what is happening.  Photography should be thought of as a participatory act. While this is not true in all cases (and seems especially relevant to the images that Azoulay is writing about), in many cases those being photographed are aware that they are being photographed. In some of those cases, those being photographed realize that this (the act of being photographed and recorded) can be a means for them to express their anger/despair/distain/plea to the rest of the world – a world that may not know about their struggle if not for the camera, operated by the photographer. Azoulay makes this point by saying:

The relations between the three parties involved in the photographic act – the photographed person, the photographer, and the spectator – are not mediated through a sovereign power and are not limited to the bounds of a nation-state or an economic contract. The users of photography thus reemerge as people who are not totally identified with the power that governs them and who have new means to look at and show its deeds, as well, and eventually to address this power and negotiate with it – citizen and noncitizen alike.

Anat Saragusti

She makes another great point of this earlier in the chapter when speaking about an image of a Palestinian shopkeeper whose shop was broken into by Israeli soldiers. About the encounter, she says:

On encountering the photographer, Anat Saragusti, the merchant faced the camera and demonstrated directly, for all to witness, evidence of the damage caused to him, the lock of his store forced open and destroyed by Israeli paratroopers sent in to break the strike. The photographed subjects of numerous photographs participate actively in the photographic act and view both this act and the photographer facing them as a framework that offers and alternative – weak though it may be – to the institutional structures that have abandoned and injured them, that continue to shirk responsibility toward these subjects and refuse to compensate them for damages. [This] presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable.

Azoulay is noting that photography requires subjects to be in front of the camera and that those in front of the camera have a power of their own. The other point she is making is that photography is not only participatory, but also can be an active agent against the state, which, while using photography itself, does not own ‘photography’ nor its operators. Photography has the ability to “look at and show [the state’s] deeds,” which is what is happening in this image and in many of the images of suffering that we witness on a daily basis.