About labeling photography as porn


General Culture, General Photography

David Campbell has published a must-read article about the seemingly ubiquitous labeling of photography as ‘porn’. I agree with David about most of his points, especially the ones in his very last paragraph (c.f. this post I wrote earlier). I also agree that labeling every kind of photography as ‘porn’ is not so helpful. That said, I do think David misses one of the crucial aspects that motivates why people talk about “ruin porn” (or whatever else). In his list of what the term “pornography” has come to mean, what seems missing is what I see as the main reason why people talk about “ruin porn”. (more)

It is true, a “violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion” - all of that is part of what pornography can mean. But what seems crucial is that pornography also and especially entails an act itself, namely the mindless, superficial, yet titillating visual consumption of imagery. That consumption might contain someone’s dignity being violated, or some desire being constructed; but at its core lies a corruption of the act of mindful viewing.

Pornography is an invitation to shamelessly ogle. Seen that way, it is easy to see how the term has come to be used so widely, since outside of the context of sexual imagery, ogling is exactly what we do not want images of ruins or disaster or poverty or war to be subjected to. We do not want to be seduced to ogle. We want to be treated as people who care, which is, after all, what we do. We care about the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, and we also care about a city in our midst that looks as if it had been plucked straight out of a war zone.

What this means is that, as David points out, the generous application of the term pornography on the one hand stands in the way of a better understanding of what actually is going on. But on the other hand, seeing the term being used so frequently points to the fact that there is indeed no failure of empathy: You have to care about something to bemoan it being presented in ways that you deem pornographic.

In other words labeling some photography pornography might be a sign of cynicism (outside of the context of sexual imagery, of course), but it’s cynicism based on an unfulfilled idealism (one could argue that the core of cynicism always is idealism - if you really don’t care, it’s hard to be cynical: Have you ever encountered a cynical stoner?).

The fact that so much photography has attracted the label “porn” indicates that there is an increasing dissatisfaction with how photography works, is treated, and discussed. It’s time to move beyond the same Susan Sontag essays. As unhelpful as the “porn” label might be, we still need to take its application to look at the possible issues, the possible discontent that is being voiced. This entails talking about empathy and its supposed lack, but it also means talking about what images mean and how their meaning is generated.