A question of why
That story has been controversial, touching off complaints that it is too graphic, too shocking, that it goes beyond normal limits. Perhaps it does; perhaps it doesn’t. Where do those limits lie? And what, precisely, is our objection to these pictures?
O’Hagan’s interest is in the ethics of the photographer, a question that springs from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which he quotes extensively (and which I posted on yesterday). But before quoting Sontag, it’s a good idea to make certain that she’s not being sloppy with the facts in the service of her argument. Sontag never was afraid to distort the truth to make a point concerning some greater truth.
O’Hagan quotes her on Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution, one of the most famous photos of the Vietnam War. Sontag contends that the photo “was staged — by General Loan, who had led the prisoner, hands tied behind his back, out to the street where journalists were gathered; he would not have carried out the summary execution there had they not been available to witness it. Positioned beside his prisoner so that his profile and his prisoner’s face were visible to the cameras behind him, Loan aimed point-blank.”
And this is essentially true — except that Sontag really has no way of knowing where, or whether, Loan would have executed the prisoner there in the absence of the cameras, and as the film of the shooting makes clear, he wasn’t very concerned about positioning himself for the cameras — in fact, one of his men stepped in front of the TV camera as he fired the shot (after, as other clips show, making his way through a crowd of soldiers).
The power of still photos lies in their ability to freeze time, and this power in turn distorts their truthfulness. Looking at Eddie Adams’s photo, we may imagine that General Loan stands alone, that he has positioned himself for the camera, and that he aimed the pistol before firing, giving Adams time to react. But the film clips show that none of these assumptions are true — and so, the extent to which Loan (who said that the photo ruined his life) “staged” this photo is legitimately in question.
And Sean O’Hagan then quotes Sontag inaccurately, as saying, “one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-authorship.”
There clearly was no co-authorship, and Sontag did not use that word. Sontag used “co-spectatorship.”
O’Hagan wants to talk about authorship here, not viewership. He wants to talk about the ethics of collaboration, despite the obvious fact that there is no collaboration in Farah Abdi Warsameh’s story. The man has been sentenced to die, and that sentence will be carried out regardless.
You can’t intervene. You can’t stop it. Putting your camera down and walking away won’t save anyone. So you shoot your pictures. Whether anyone will see those pictures is a question for tomorrow.
Sontag is on the money here: the ethical question is not authorship, but spectatorship.
Photos such as these become pornographic not when they are made, but in the eyes of the audience. They become pornographic when we gawk at them like accident-scene rubberneckers, when we show them to someone else to enjoy their reaction. They are not pornographic when we consider them seriously, as we should.
What makes this story so appalling is not the bloodied face of the dead man, but the opening frame: the picture of him being buried to the chest before he is stoned to death. This is the picture that brings home the victim’s humanity, that arouses our sympathy. You can feel that dirt piling in on you, knowing that you can’t move, that you can’t escape or protect yourself in any way from what is about to happen. This photograph raises questions about capital punishment as no photo of a man walking to the scaffold, or the electric chair, or the lethal injection ever could, because the man is physically trapped. And he knows what is coming.
In fact, that first photo is the one that matters here, the one that gives the story its power. The others are simply context.
Is it hard to look at? Yes. And this is the motivation of knee-jerk condemnation.
Should we look at it? O’Hagan quotes Sontag, again: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it.”
The question is not whether we should look at it, but why we do.