Week 8 – Responses and Responsibilities

Are we desensitised to images of conflict today?

Can imagery provoke change – can it be the catalyst between thought and action?

Desensitisation has resulted as much through censorship and editorial acquiescence to perceived ‘sensibilities’ as it has to saturation of images.  It is the rare photograph of the burning Jordanian pilot or the burned Iraqi soldier that makes publication. The outrage after 9/11 of the photo of the severed hand is an everyday occurrence in a conflict zone.  Landmines, IEDs, and cluster bombs are just some of the horror inducing factors that prey not only upon the combatants, but the innocent.  How often have you seen a disembowelment or a dismemberment other than in a Hollywood movie where we all know it is nothing but special effects and no one was harmed in the filming?  Well look around and see how many soldiers have come home missing limbs. We are shown the aftermath and we all feel sorry for the poor soldier, but we don’t really know and therefore do not really care about the actual event that tore limbs from that person’s body.  How many children have been destroyed by landmines left behind?  We don’t know because no one takes or will show those photos and so we don’t care because it is not in our back garden and we don’t have to worry about where we walk or dig to plant our flowers or tatties.

An article in the Washington Post from 14 Mar 2019 is a perfect example of the censorship that goes into keeping people from seeing what really goes on in conflict.

“The Marines don’t want you to see what happens when propaganda stops and combat begins”



“The true horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken.” (Sontag: 2004)

Perhaps the true horror is that photographs that should be taken or published are not seeing the light of day.  Perhaps we, particularly in Western society, have become too comfortable and complacent.  It is only when terror touches our lives directly that anyone sits up and takes notice, for a minute.  There are horrible things happening in every corner of the planet every day, example after example of man’s inhumanity to man, people suffering from overpopulation, disease, famine, lack of opportunity, social and racial oppression, war while we sit home and complain when our internet signal is too slow.  Yes, these are all big issues and they require political solutions on a massive scale such that no single one of us could buck that tide.  But if everyone buries their head in the sand there is no hope for anything but the status quo, while on the other hand if everyone went from a momentary “too bad for those poor people” to getting into the dialogue, then perhaps finally ‘thoughts and prayers’ could really become actions and results. And I am as guilty as the next person.

I suspect the question of whether a photograph can provoke action is actually a somewhat specious linkage of cause and effect.  Western societies have become increasingly egocentric in character, and while there are many even within these societies suffering, the inertia associated with comparatively comfortable lives is difficult to overcome.  My experience tells me that any stimulus, photograph or otherwise, is most often dismissed as “other” until the event in question directly touches the viewer.  Many of us live in cocoons of familiarity and believe there is more than enough to do to maintain the integrity of those cocoons, rather than reaching out to right wrongs we can see but can also easily ignore until they penetrate our cocoons.  And in fairness, the amount of strife, suffering and injustice is overwhelming.  Just thinking about it is enough to drag most people in the depths of despair and depression.  No one person can solve it all.  I don’t know how we motivate enough people to each do just a little bit to make a difference, but as much as I would like it to be so, I don’t think photographs, at least the ones allowed to go to print today, will do it.

The problem of malappropriation and the ability to reshape the meaning are equally significant problems inherent to the photograph.  Written essays are more difficult to reshape to a different purpose.

“The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.” (Sontag, 1977: 3)

The well documented example of the UKIP Brexit refugee photo is a perfect example, but also it is not difficult to see how the ISIS “execution” photo in this week’s course material could be used by someone of a different political persuasion to illustrate their point of view.  The fact that ISIS did not execute these people and their purpose was to make an argument they were not criminals (true or not) could certainly have been (and probably was) used to claim ISIS are savage by simply claiming the executions did take place.  Since no editor in the Western press would likely ever print a photo of 10 heads simultaneously spewing blood and brain tissue toward the camera, we are forced into ambiguity that can be easily manipulated to different purposes.

“In these last decades ‘concerned photography’ has done at least as much to deaden our conscience as to arouse it.” (Sontag, 1977: 21)

I would argue that photographic and editorial censorship and violence as entertainment have done far more to deaden our collective conscience than ‘concerned photography’.  How frequently have we heard the statement, war is okay until the public start seeing the body bags coming home?  How much effort has been put into shielding the public from the realities because the leaders are afraid of the political fallout?  Most of the US Congress have never served in the military and many of their children will not either, so there is little personal risk to them in sending someone else’s children into battle.



SONTAG, Susan. 2004. ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’. The New York Times Magazine (23 May 2004), [online]. Available at: ttps://goo.gl/PwSVZ.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

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