Saturday, September 7, 2013

Just Because More Images Are On the Internet-Does NOT Mean we Are Numb to The Pain of Others

Yes, we are exposed to A LOT of information. I read pressing arguments about images not causing shock or magic anymore, and about images saturating us because we are exposed to thousands of them daily. Apparently the media is offering us too many images, and specially too many images of violence. The pressing issue is that saturation: seeing billions of images, might de-sensitize our affective or empathetic devices. But I am not sure about this argument. Who feels numb?  who ever felt nothing when looking at an image of humans in pain? 
To use the events of Vietnam as an example, when images of people grieving or suffering from violence got to the United States, they altered the humanitarian and political response to the war. 
This was one of the points of this week's New York Times article titled Images of the Vietnam War That Defined an Era and I agree. But the other two points were of this sort:  1) to cause nostalgia for the times when there was no internet and 2) to bring forward a complain that photojournalists have more competition. This complaint was backed up by argument 2a) that having access to billions of images saturates audiences. 
Regarding point 2 and 2a, Ralph Blumenthal wrote yesterday: 
In a digital world, the pre-eminence of Vietnam-era photography is unlikely ever to be duplicated, experts say.
Today’s war photographers produce work “every bit as good as anything out of Vietnam,” said Michael Kamber, a freelance photographer who covered Iraq for The New York Times and is the author of “Photojournalists at War.” “But when you put more stuff on the Internet, it competes with more stuff on the Internet.”
Back then, he said, “great photographs had tremendous staying power: you didn’t have access to billions of photos.”
So, sure, there is more competition now that there is more stuff in the internet. But most of us, audiences, can distinguish between good and bad images. And if this is about photojournalists being upset about competition, why not just be grateful that we get to see more images now, instead of less. Specially when some of these have the power to change us, to haunt us. 
If we live in a visual world, then images play an important role in framing and allocating what counts as humanity in a visual field. In times of war and violence, images that move us can show us who or what populations suffer, who grieves, who loses. Images can open up our field of perception so that we see more, empathize more, do more. 
Susan Sontag who wrote a lot about images, aesthetics, and beauty, warns us in her book On Photography that photographs, in their omnipresence, are deadening our responses to the suffering of others. It is understandable that many who grew up reading Sontag  agree with this claim, that images saturate us, that we are callous as a society. 
 But Sontag herself, displays a different view in her last book published before she died, Regarding the Pain of Others. Here, thankfully, she is not so sure about this anymore. Her conclusion:
"Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function".
I think images can perform vital functions, and we need this distribution of images because images still have the capacity to move us. 
I already wrote about indifference in the media, and argued that those who enjoy certain privilege might afford to remain indifferent, to claim they are saturated. But if we are to understand that those populations pictured grieving are human, not just instrumentalized, objectified, targets of war, that they are vulnerable to political fronts, battles, death, injustice. If we are to understand that populations lost are not just numbers, that humanity needs to be framed in more egalitarian ways, then we have to apprehend images, if these images are to haunt us, if we are to be moved, if we are to respond actively.
So please keep taking photographs, keep going into places unreached and unheard about, keep opening up our limited visual field. Audiences can distinguish what is good and what is bad. If the New York Times refuses to accept your photographs, or review your art because they don't want competition, duh, use the internet to share them. Some are arguing for saturation, or having nostalgia for the pre-internet days. But others are showing us that life is precarious through their photographs, that an affective apprehension of grief or pain might be the first step to reach a better understanding of violence and war, to lessen this violence, this war. 

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