Bearing Witness (Part III) - The Need to See

"Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates ... In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture."

- Susan Sontag, from On Photography (1977)  

In the "Bearing Witness" series, I've described the pervasiveness of photography today, and the contribution of the observer to the image. In its originally intended form (before the advent of digital photography and PhotoShop®), the photograph bears witness to events, locations, people, cultures, and history. A photograph is a visual narrative - because we see, we are engendered with  a more personal experience of a particular event, landscape, or person. Words alone are often insufficient to imbue a sense of personal presence and identification - what we can see in an instant leaves us with an incontrovertible, objective reality. The mental image is real, not reconstructed, or imagined. It is said, tritely, that a picture is worth a thousand words - a picture is worth many words, to be sure … the precise number likely depends on the observer. And therein lies its power.

This last week has been a sad one for our Earth inhabiting family. The tragedy of Malaysia MH17, and the simultaneous offensive in Gaza have occupied the lion's share of print, television, and internet media. The events are a reminder that our seemingly massive world is indeed small - that we are all share basic needs of safety and security, and that it is less a given for some than for others. When the sanctity of life is breached, especially at the hands of another human being, we react - as outside observers we are shocked, sad, angry. Or perhaps, whether due to culture or loyalty, we find comfort in a sort of rationalized karmic justification. 

The media has been flooded with images - charred fuselage and engine pieces, unzipped and spilled luggage, personal items that expose the magnitude of human loss: a child's stuffed monkey, a woman's red flats with gold studs, a man's orange fedora, a Bali travel book, passports, headphones. Newscasters go on to describe what they see - the people. Their remains. Some media have elected to restrain this particular photographic imagery … others have not. Out of respect for the families. Out of respect for life. Broadly, if done properly and respectfully, the images serve to document, but they also stoke emotion, awake social justice, and counter passivity. Personally, however, the imagery is surely devastating. 

We have a need to see. Which is very different from the right to see. Consider the car accident that slows traffic on both sides of the highway - why? Because people slow down to get a close look. What is it that they want to see? I don't have a good answer for this. I can tell you that I make a conscious effort not to look. But the fact that it is an effort needles me. There is a need to bear witness to human pain and suffering - it is innate, though I can't imagine the evolutionary purpose this serves. On the other hand, this pain and suffering is intensely personal and, were it my own, I would guard it fiercely, privately, rabidly. It is no one's right to share, and certainly not a stranger's. 

And yet.

Time LightBox highlighted images of MH17 from Magnum photographer, Jerome Sessini. When the feed first came through with the warning of graphic imagery, I skipped it. I had been telling myself that showing these images was disrespectful to the individuals and their families; and viewing them would be perpetuating that disrespect. Maybe it was because it was a Magnum photographer, but later that day, after some thought, I clicked on the link. Another warning: "WARNING: SOME OF THE FOLLOWING IMAGES ARE GRAPHIC IN NATURE AND MIGHT BE DISTURBING TO SOME VIEWERS". Again I considered. The images are indeed graphic. They are raw. They are disturbing - for all viewers, I hope. They are real. Juxtaposed against the idyllic beauty of the Ukrainian countryside with its warm wheat fields and lavender flowers, its sunflower fields, and stormy summer skies, they bear witness in a way that other images do not. They show the stark unnaturalness of disregard for human life - they demand justice and reaction in a very visceral way. There is no need for pundits, description, analysis, or political discussion - one image suffices. Just one.

Yes, these images pass as incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. Regardless of who did it, why, where equipment came from … I have a hard time justifying war in any form. For those of us who sit in relative comfort and hear about these events as they occur in a seemingly far away place, to seemingly foreign people … we are all part of the same tribe. We need to see because we could be them. We are them. And maybe this is why we need to see. Because bearing witness to senseless hostility should strengthen our resolve to cherish the sanctity of our humanity and our world. 


(I have purposely omitted the direct link to the images out of respect for differing perspectives. The images are easy enough to find; but I'd rather it be your own active search process than a passive one.)