Friday, May 29, 2009

Images of Iraqis: Shock and Cliché?

I recently came across a great photo essay on the enduring suffering of Iraqis: SUFFERANCE: Iraqi Victims of War (some images graphic). Below are two images from the essay.

These images are both sad and powerful. They provide a window into the lives of Iraqis hurt by the war and conflict. They personalize the reality of life for Iraqis. Many Americans, including me, are shocked by this reality. As with the power of art in general, these photos can transform perceptions of reality.

Yet the "shock factor," unfortunately, wears off. According to Susan Sontag, in our culture “the image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence" (Regarding the Pain of Others, 23). The images above are shocking (and important reminders of the continuing and enduring suffering of Iraqis), but many Americans have seen similar images for the last six years. What has already shocked soon becomes passé. Images that were once scandalous cease to be beyond our boundaries and instead move within our understanding. We become inured and numbed, consumers of spectacle.

What does this say about us? About our relationship with the depicted Iraqis? Can photos such as these provide more than an initial spark of motivation to change the reality of the depicted, or does that reality simply become part of "the way the world works"? Does the sympathy that photographs can engender have any real worth? If feelings of pity and sympathy fail to translate into action, are they less than worthy, i.e., can they reflect negatively on us as perpetrators of some further crime of inaction against the depicted?

Sontag also writes, “for the other, even when not an enemy, is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees” (72). As a stillframe window, the image shows only a moment of the other's life. We do not see the whole story, the person's family, home, work, daily life, etc. In this sense the image is all too often a product to be consumed, with the power to shock and change perceptions, but not to develop a relationship or sense of personal connection with the depicted. By itself, an image soon becomes old hat.

While photos in the media are often intended for this limited function - to shock and then become cliché - images can serve a more positive function when incorporated into a larger narrative and project of building personal connections. The photo essay above, SUFFERANCE: Iraqi Victims of War, for example, displays images of Iraqis suffering not simply to shock and sell, but as part of an ongoing project begun in July 2008 photographing and documenting the lives of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. There is a larger narrative that the photographs support and that aims to engage on a deeper level than shock. While our culture tends to consume images for the pleasure of viewing them, these images of Iraqis are used as points of entry into greater personal involvement with the lives of Iraqis.

My concern with this post has been the value or utility of photos for social justice, rather than any inherent value as art. In their general use in the media, photos reflect a disturbing appetite for shock, consumption, and inaction. As part of a larger project of social justice, however, photos can act as powerful inroads to greater personal engagement and action.

So the next time you see a photo of suffering or pain, think about the entire story and life behind the image. The person in the picture also sees, and looks at photos, and wants to understand more of your life.

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