Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Many Victims of Photography

At present there is an extremely minor hubbub in twitter's "photoland" about photographs of dead bodies in Ukraine. After starting out with a "just watch, if these were people of color we'd be seeing lots of bodies, but they're white, so we won't" which turned out to be, oops, wrong. Don't worry, that trope will get dragged out again for the next conflict. Anyway, those same people pivoted without breaking stride to the incredible inappropriateness and very problematicishness of publishing pictures of dead people in a war zone, even if they are pretty white.

The story being bandied about is that a father learned of the death of his family from a twitter post. Let us stipulate that the story is accurate.

The conceit is that learning about this horror from twitter in some way magnifies the horror in a substantive way.

I am having a hard time imagining that, to be honest. It's a hammer-blow to the face no matter what. The tragedy here is the death of the family, not the peculiarly stupid way in which the father learned of it. I think a cogent argument can be made that by focusing on the "On Twitter, canyouimagine?!!!" aspect diminishes the larger sorrow.

Let us imagine that, somehow, he'd learned about it from a kindly old lady who made him a nice cup of tea and had him sit in a comfortable wing-backed chair in a cozy paisley pattern before breaking the news. Is this really a hell of a lot better? The family is still dead. Sure, it's probably a little better, but at this point we're measuring a trauma the size of a bus with a micrometer to find the differences.

No matter what, though, this incident is emblematic of a much larger trend.

The mission is to locate a victim of some sort for every photo. It could be a real person, or simply a kind of notional one. The next step is to argue that this someone is, was, or in theory could be hurt in some way by the photo. The degree of hurt doesn't matter. The context doesn't matter. Any ambiguity doesn't matter. Any good the photo might do doesn't matter. The last step is to conclude that the photo should not exist. We have established a victim, and therefore the photo should not have been taken, should not have been published, and should be withdrawn. Also, the photographer should be punished.

On the one hand there is no doubt that photography as a whole, and photojournalism particularly, has suffered from a fairly callous outlook. To propose that photographers should take more care for people who might be hurt by their pictures isn't a crazy position to take.

At the same time, though, to simply swap "we must never chance hurting anyone" for "the public has a right to know" is to replace one stupid simplification with another.

Just to be perfectly clear: I am not arguing that we should ignore this idea of victimhood. I am arguing that we should include it with other salient factors.

A photograph is just an arrangement of tones and color, which is inherently harmless. It can carry information, and information can indeed harm. Mostly it's a twinge, a regret, a sadness, a bad memory. Sometimes, if we reveal the address of a mob informant, someone gets killed.

Thinking about these things is fine, we ought to do that. But it's not an either/or.

To claim that any potential harm constitutes a veto is to claim that photography should not exist. Any photo that carries information has the potential to harm, if we're broad-minded about who we're willing to force victim status on to.

There's a whole side note that could be inserted here about "victim culture" versus "dignity" or "honor" cultures, although in this case the players are assigning victim status as the Ultimate Trump Card rather than claiming it for themselves. If you're not familiar with this approach to modeling culture, you can look it up.

Some middle road surely is the right approach.


  1. "What's the suggested alternative?"

    "I'm not going to have that conversation, sorry."

    1. Wait, are you that guy? You swore you'd never tweet.

      Actually that guy is more quite than your are, I think.

    2. I think Twitter (and most all 'social media' for that matter) is more harmful than alcohol, and that's why I'm sticking to alcohol.

    3. Twitter definitely melts the brain. I am, naturally, immune.

  2. A few years ago, I learned about the death of my cousin over social media. It made it neither more nor less sad, but I was grateful I could reach out more swiftly to my Uncle and Aunt. The days of reading death notices in the local paper are gone, and in my case, as I live abroad, not even possible.
    I personally don't see it as a problem. It's always awful.

  3. Check out all the work by Lynsey Addario and you will see that she documents the suffering due to war and other issues. It was her photograph that sparked this debate. But had she not shown the world the horrors of this invasion we might not see how brutal this attack is. Her work and others should be lauded for their bravery to tell the story you may not want to see or read but needs to be told...over and over again.

    1. 'See no evil, hear no evil, tweet evil like there's no tomorrow.' -- photoland

    2. I think there might be an undercurrent of "we hate Lynsey" in this, there was some weird moment where she was photographed laughing and a few of these idiots were Very Offended at that.

      This would not be the first time "photoland" tries to clean up an industry dominated by white men through the dialectic of attacking women and minorities. It's kind of a thing with these fucking guys.

  4. If the conversion rate from pictures to words is truly 1000:1, then this trend comes as no surprise given the extent to which words are being censored these days...

  5. News Flash: Photoland has just discovered war photography is a *commodity*