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When is it right to make images of suffering?

Added on by thomas brauer.

I was pointed to this article on The Guardian recently:…/sky-news-somalia-fgm-alleged-f…

First, if you are sensitive to the imaginative ways in which humans hurt each other, then consider whether or not you'd want to read this article, but I hope that you do. Female Genital Mutilation is a form of abuse that is getting more airplay in the press (as this article implies), but has been relatively unspoken of in the Church. This article should be read and the issues considered for the seriousness of FGM and the horror it is to women in many cultures around the world. This article should be read for that reason first.

What I want to comment on, however is a point of very much secondary importance raised here. In this article is a hint at a long and nuanced discussion of the place of footage or photography of suffering and violence. This is an area of research for me, and something I've spent a tremendous amount of time thinking and writing about. I thought I might say one or two things about that here.

The anti-FGM advocates discussed in this article are challenging not only the airing but also the creation of mediated images of a little girl undergoing FGM. Their argument is that the event was an immoral act of child-abuse (and it was) and anyone who stood by and did nothing was complicit in that abuse. For them, that would include the journalists and camera operators who filmed and photographed the event.

This is a very long held argument. Susan Sontag discusses in the mid 1970s her feeling that the photographer of violence is interested in the status-quo; in the continuation of the violence in order to get a 'good shot' or 'good footage'. For Sontag, the photographer is guilty of the violence they record either for not acting to prevent it, or for perpetuating it through the media. In such a case, whether intended or not, the photographer's work is one which supports and is in solidarity with the perpetrator of the violence.

This is a powerful argument. It is easy to see how this could be true, and how a photographer (or a press agency) might become so cynical about their work that there is no compassion for the victim or subject, only interest in the shot.

There is another argument, though. That is that the photographer is there as a voice for the sufferer, is there in solidarity with the victim, not the perpetrator. In this perspective, the photographer or journalist takes on the roles of advocate, companion, and public voice. Photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, or James Nachtway might be seen as ideal (though not un-criticised) examples of this understanding of the photographer of suffering.

What complicates this story is that those who know most about this kind of abuse and suffering, those who have lived what the little girl in these pictures and footage is living, these women are saying that these images do not advocate for them and are not legitimate expressions of their public voice. Rather, they are saying images like this further victimise them and perpetuate the harm and that they might diminish the good advocacy being done in other ways.

From my perspective, I believe very much in the powerful and positive role that photographs of violence or suffering can play in transforming opinions and stirring actions (just think of the images of little Alan Kurdi on that Turkish Beach and their impact, or the photograph of Kim Phuc in Vietnam running naked from a napalm attack that that images affect on American war sentiment). I believe that this kind of photography is important and necessary. BUT ONLY IF IT IS IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE VICTIM and only if it communicates the suffering in a way that does not perpetuate or extend the harm.

For what appears to be the majority of women who have been tortured in this way, it does not appear that they feel that such images are in solidarity with them. They feel that these images do vastly more harm than good. For those who have been mutilated and tortured in this way, consent was never an option. Their consent over their bodies and future sexuality was stolen. These images might be understood to be a further robbing of consent - not only through the question of whether or not the girl in the footage gave legitimate consent to have the images made, but also in the communication of an act that overrides her right to consent to what happens to her own body.

Suffering has its own authority. Suffering makes its own demands upon societies and individuals. The voice of the women calling for this footage to be removed appears to me to be the voice of that suffering. Perhaps they should be listened to. The last word should be theirs:

“They are unanimous. They want the clip to be withdrawn. For them it is about consent. Some of them are very angry. One can argue that there is a place for showing these kind of images, for training and to show the extent of damage and give an insight but this isn’t it. You have to listen to the survivors. It is their story and we have to go by how they want that story to be told.” - Dr. Comfort Momoh, London, as quoted in the article linked below and above.


Sky News urged to drop footage of girl undergoing FGM

Activist says film from Somalia shows young girl being held down and cut while people look on|By Mary Carson