When I See Pictures of Victims

To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street.

-Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

A photograph of refugees streaming out of war-torn Yarmouk introduces an online article. A humanitarian advertisement displays a malnourished dog, mostly skin and bones, on the brink of death. A Facebook friend posts infrared photographs of helicopter pilots firing rounds into a group of footsoldiers.

Violent images inundate my daily world.

Which is disturbing. Infuriating. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve seen that I would rather not see. Maybe should not see. My gut reacts and screams these pictures should not exist!

But another part of me thinks that they should.

These pictures should exist, because we should bear witness to the tragedy in our world. We should be concerned about the violence, war, and pain which constitute the daily lives of so many.

Voisleux au Mont
Voisleux au Mont

I was taught in middle school, through the mediums of print and picture and holocaust memorial, that the only thing worse than suffering is the agony of suffering in quiet anonymity, of being forgotten.

So when I see images of violence and violent aftermath, I tell myself that these provide entrances into the experiences of others, allowing me to attest to the reality of their sufferings. Yes, this is (or was) your experience and nobody can take that away from you.

These entrances, however, are often illusory. Sometimes they merely allow me to reiterate my own innocence and impotence[1] (that is my utter inability to react constructively), creating an even larger distance between myself and the photographed subject.

And it is in times like these that I fear my viewing begins to border upon voyeurism.

Susan Sontag takes up the issue of violent imagery in her book Regarding the Pain of Others and makes several points that I find helpful, one of which highlights a rather insidious effect of viewing violent imagery:

…photographs of the victims of war are themselves pieces of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.[2]

It is hardly surprising that we all tend to react the same way to the unadorned, decontextualized images of suffering; I imagine that very few of us are unmoved when we see pictures of dead humans.

But context is everything. The moment the dead are identified (or perhaps especially when they remain unidentified) they get appropriated by sides, causes, and governments, or, otherwise, discounted as illegitimate. Dead children become dead Palestinians killed by Israelis, or dead Israelis killed by Palestinians, or faked, depending upon which side you find yourself.

Images of hollow-eyed GI’s, a type of photograph that once subverted militarism in the early twentieth century, now serve as inspiration for a new generation of American patriots.[3]

In this sense, images of suffering create a false “we.” A false us, the normal ones that lament over this violence and are moved to prevent its reoccurrence – when, in fact, “the illustrative function of photographs leaves opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched.[4]

The act of viewing may indeed move us, but what feels like movement might turn out to be the further entrenchment of our own preconceptions.

When I encounter images of victims I must ask myself:  do they create in me a real sense of action-inducing empathy toward this specific people, or merely a cathartic platform on which to reassert my identity?

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2003), 102.
[2] Sontag, 6.
[3] Ibid., 38.
[4] Ibid., 84.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • the answer does not come from within, but what is within calls out to the answer, the way, the Truth, and the Life.