Trigger warning: The following article includes images of deprivation, assault, death, nudity and war, which may be disturbing to some people.
By Khushboo Upreti
Clicked in 1974, Nick Ut’s photograph of the “Napalm Girl” served as a reminder to the world that the Vietnam War was a man-made catastrophe with impact on human life. Following the release of the photograph, there was an escalation of anti-war protests in the United States and worldwide, showcasing the impact a lens can have.
Documentary photographs have always held a power over individuals as they tell a compelling tale, usually about individuals who are victims of human depravity. By directing our attention to the poignancy of their suffering, photos strike us with the realness of the crisis, something which a death toll even when it runs into millions is unable to do. Pictures spark our empathy as they impact our visual senses, forcing us to imagine ourselves or loved ones in a similar situation. Thus, the world was left dumbstruck by the photo of Alan Kurdi who was washed ashore a Turkey beach. The first sentiment the image ignites is: this could be my child.Photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background whose image made global headlines after he drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The release of the picture was followed by a surge in monetary contributions to charities working for refugees with one charity, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, recording a 15-fold increase in donations within 24 hours of its publication. Images become an indispensable supplement to a factual narrative and compel us to act in the face of disaster.
Additionally, at times, photos have also acted as instruments of subversion. This can be seen with Ernest Cole’s attempt to produce a gripping counter-narrative of the subjugation faced by blacks during the apartheid regime in South Africa. In fact, the authorities were so fearful of photography that entry of foreign journalists was banned, and eventually, documentary photography was deemed as being illegal.
In this context, photos go beyond their mere association with aesthetics to produce something of immense value. In effect, photos possess the ability to project issues in a forceful manner which arouses the human emotions and compels them to act on them. It was after all the photos leaked from Abu Ghraib prison, which drew the world’s attention to the torture being meted out to the Iraqi prisoners and the wide-scale human rights abuse taking place under the larger banner of GWOT.Image from Abu Gharib prison entitled ‘On the Box’ whereby an Iraqi who was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Limitations of images
Despite the attention visceral imagery generates, its impact and translation into tangible action is often questioned. Although they are meant to appeal to our sense and make us realise the true impact of ills worldwide, they at times do not spark tangible action. They often spark contributions in the form of donations but these fleeting in nature and fail to bring about a decisive change which addresses our problems at a grass-roots level.
Furthermore, in this age of unprecedented connectivity, it has become fairly common for substantive photos to go unnoticed. Paradoxically so, such photos find themselves to be in greatest jeopardy in this age of seamless photo sharing. Also, given the subjective nature of the photos, there is a risk of them being misunderstood even when they are accompanied by appropriate or explanatory captions.
Thus, unlike articles, photos fail to provide a layered analysis. Photos can also be seen as bringing to light a problem without hinting towards a solution. Due to the same, even when pictures inspire people to act, they don’t know what direction to head towards to inspire real change.
In addition to this, it is often argued that photographs are generally staged, that is while they reflect the crisis at large, the precise circumstance of the image may have been constructed in a certain way to garner maximum impact. Thus, the heart-wrenching photo of an emaciated girl in Sudan has been criticised over the photographer, Kevin Carter, spending close to twenty minutes, waiting for the vulture to inch closer to the girl, in order to get the perfect shot.
In spite of the kind of limitations surmised above, capturing photos becomes indispensable at a time when we’re being subjected to a barrage of human atrocities like the ones in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan to name a few. Photographs are one of the only tools which provide an evocative manifestation of individual misery to showcase the dark side of humanity. This arousal of sympathy is necessary to bring about discernible change.
Khushboo Upreti is studying political science from Hindu College, Delhi University.
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