Can’t understand, can’t imagine

What's at stake when photographing atrocities in the third world?

In December of 2008, I returned from a study abroad program in Nairobi, Kenya. Like many of my fellow North American students visiting Africa for the first time, I had embarked on the trip armed with an ample amount of naiveté, excitement, and certain expectations (informed and imagined) of what my experience would entail.

Indeed, of the many “Other” places in the world, Africa has perhaps been most often projected as that “Other”. Since colonial times, the continent and its people have been constructed and positioned as decidedly exotic in our Western imagination. Contemporary Africa has become iconized by images of disease, famine, war, and conflict, which have served to reinforce its “exoticization” as the inverse to a  North American lifestyle. Whether envisioned as permanently primordial for the sake of foreign control, or pictured as the “dark continent” in dire need of aid and assistance, Africa’s alterity has ultimately become its own attraction.

Sparing the descent into a tired diatribe on the legacy of colonial history and the imperative need for cultural sensitivity when visiting these “Other” places, I would like to explore an issue which was raised during my time in Kenya and which remains a source of conversation and conflict: the role of photography in representations of the Other, and in particular, what Susan Sontag has termed the “iconography of suffering.”

In addition to being armed with lofty ideas and images of Africa inspired by National Geographic covers, my fellow students and I were endowed with a particular gift of modernity: the digital camera. Together we debated the implications of appropriate picture-taking. In capturing images of Africa, we were adamant in our commitment to “cultural sensitivity” and fervent in our desire to avoid any measure of ethnocentrism or exploitative tourism. Snapping mantelpiece shots of kissing giraffes was acceptable, but we were collectively mortified when one of our peers dared to ask if she could take pictures of babies at an orphanage for children with HIV. People’s lives, we agreed, were not material for our photo albums.

However, quickly these grandiose commitments fell to the wayside in our growing desire to snap photographs of everything and everyone we saw. We became inexplicably compelled to capture images that mirrored the Kenya we had constructed in our minds. Far worse than our desire to capture the African landscape of our imagination was the desire to capture the Africans of our imagination. Spurred by the quest for authenticity, we sought to create what we believed to be a true representation of Africa – images of human suffering.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes that, “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists.” Photojournalism is a field fraught with irreconcilable tensions between aesthetic pursuits, truthful documentation, and the obligation of human conscience. War photographers frequently come under harsh criticism for their choices to enter conflict or disaster zones for the purposes of documentation and with refusal to interfere. Indeed, it has become nearly platitudinous to argue that photojournalism is inherently exploitative in privileging art and the pursuit of the image over human experience.

The overwhelming majority of such photographs of trauma come from areas that we might identify as the “developing world,” a phenomenon Sontag identifies as exhibiting “exotic” – meaning colonized – subjects. The photographic representation of atrocity creates an imagined proximity between the spectator and those who are suffering. As spectators, we have become conditioned to rely on these images’ evocation of shock, shame and sympathy. Through the “iconography of suffering,” a type of voyeurism is engendered. Whether we are faraway spectators, or behind the camera ourselves, the act of representation further exoticizes the human experience and in doing so, reinforces the space between us and the Other.

Emblematic of these questions is the story of Kevin Carter, a South African photographer whose 1993 image of a starving Sudanese toddler being stalked by a vulture won acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize. Carter’s photo was met with overwhelming reader responses and queries regarding the fate of the young girl. Had she made it to safety? Had Carter helped her? Or had she been left to her fate, immortalized on film?

A few months after being awarded the prize, Carter took his own life, citing “vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children.” His death left a mark on the field of photojournalism and brought a new set of questions and challenges to the meaning of the image in our modern context, and especially, what it means to capture the image of human suffering. The discourse surrounding the “iconography of suffering” are all too often obscured by the harsh criticisms wagered against the individuals who choose to engage with this medium. We must not shy away from confronting our attraction to the image, and the meanings and implications of the images themselves.