When we see more


General Photography

In response to my earlier post about variations of Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War image, duckrabbit ask “When we see more, do we give more of ourselves?” That indeed is the crucial aspect, which is why I wrote “We need to add ourselves back in.” (more)

I had a debate with a student the other day about images and what they do, and she argued that since there are so many images of everything - including suffering I suppose - we’ve become unable to act in any way. We’ve become callous. I do agree with that to a certain extent, the only difference being that our callousness to a larger extent than we care to admit is our choice.

After all, having been exposed to images of suffering does not in fact immobilize us. We are able to go about our lives just as we did before. For example, we all have seen more than enough images of horrible car crashes, yet people still get into their cars and drive to work. And that’s, well, a decision. In a somewhat related fashion, having seen the victims of horrible car crashes does not render EMT’s utterly incapable of doing something when they arrive on the scene. Actually, it’s quite the opposite - an EMT who’d be frozen because of all the blood would be the worst possible EMT.

These are imperfect images, that’s for sure. But I do believe that when we claim we are now immune to images of suffering because we have seen too many that’s in part a convenient excuse not to do anything. It is a decision. For example, if I see a photograph of a starving child that photo might not shock me quite as much as the first such photo did that I ever saw. But unlike in the earliest instance, my reaction now is mostly dominated by my critical thinking, which is way less influenced by all the feelings of sadness and frustration. I’m in a much better position to make a decision about whether or not I want to do something.

So if I decide not to donate any money to a charity, say, thinking “It’s not going to do anything anyway,” that’s a decision. I might be tempted to think that it’s an educated decision, even though I’m not so sure about that (just because there still is hunger in the world doesn’t mean that all previous attempts to deal with hunger have been futile).

That’s uncomfortable to hear, isn’t it? It’s nice to be able to blame all those images for one’s callousness. But it’s not so nice to realize that at the end of the day, we do make decisions about what to do, we are not mindless automatons.

So my response to duckrabbit’s “When we see more, do we give more of ourselves?” is: We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we are making decisions. Our action or non-action, to a pretty large extent is based on a decision to act or not to act.

This is not to say that we can or should act about each and every instance of injustice we come across. That would be impossible. We need to make decisions about when to act and when not to act.

But if we decide not to act at all, regardless of what we see, then we end up in the situation where, ultimately, everything has vanished from Nick Ut’s photo: The victims, the “troops,”…

In other words, I’m with duckrabbit here. Images are not conductors of change per se. Images are what they are. Ultimately, things are up to us. We need to add ourselves back in.

This also means that photographers can’t treat images like agents of change any longer in the way you might have been able to do that in the past. The way we usually talk about this is to say that the audience is visually very literate now. We know what images can do, we know that images are used on a daily basis to manipulate us. So having images is one thing, but using them in a smart way, in a way that treats us all like adults - that’s quite another thing.