Shimrit Lee

Curated by Keith Miller and Lauren Walsh, the “Lost to History” exhibition includes the work of four photographers – Ron Haviv, Andrea Bruce, Emily Pederson and Karanjit Singh – who shed light on stories that run the risk of flying below our radar. On September 19, Haviv and Bruce joined Emma Daly, the Communications Director at Human Rights Watch, for a discussion on the ethics and difficulties of covering conflicts in faraway places. In her introductory remarks, Professor Vasuki Nesiah noted the ubiquity by which the field of human rights has adopted photography as a new vocabulary, one that raises the near-cliché moral dilemma articulated by Susan Sontag:  “to take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”

The panel began with this question: Can photojournalists create compelling imagery that can move a public while being sensitive to the subjects portrayed? All panelists responded with uncritical positivity. Bruce, who has covered the civil war in Syria for the New York Times argued, “Everyone wants their story to be told in some way. [As photographers], we are accepted by the people we take photos of. People understand what we’re there for.” Haviv, whose photos of the environmental impact of gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon are featured in the exhibit, echoed this sentiment: “[The subjects] understand why we’re there. It’s an unspoken relationship that exists.” Emma Daly brought up the example of Human Rights Watch’s spotlight on abuses in the Central African Republic, and praised the role of photography for bringing UN peacekeepers to the scene and eliciting support from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

© Ron Haviv in Darfur

While the moderators raised important questions about the ethics and responsibilities of photojournalism, the discussion barely scratched the surface to interrogate the afterlives of these images. What does it mean when Ron Haviv’s 1989 photo of a bloodied opposition candidate in Panama directly influenced former president H.W. Bush’s decision to launch an even bloodier intervention in that country? What are the implications of vying for the support of Samantha Power, one of the most hawkish supporters of U.S. intervention in conflicts across the globe? All of the panelists seemed to agree that photojournalism ultimately changes people’s lives for the better, and that intervention can lead to an amelioration of human suffering.

In response to a poignant question about how photojournalists can be voyeuristic in conflict zones that have been created by U.S. involvement in the first place (e.g. the Taliban in Afghanistan), Emma Daly argued,  “Nobody’s perfect. We’re all complicit in something bad. But I think a lot of people are making an honest attempt to tell a story or make a difference in their own way.” Haviv gave his own example of a photograph he took of young girls in Darfur, their heads bowed in the early morning light as they left a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) to gather firewood. What is most remarkable about the photo, he explained, is how dignified and relatable the young girl in the foreground appears to be (“If you saw her here in the village, you’d be like, ‘where did you get that dress?’”). He described how she became a poster child for UNICEF and Amnesty International, and how that offered him hope: “That photo changed people’s lives for the better on the ground, just through checkbook effect. I understand that the work I do can have an effect on their lives for the better. That’s a pretty great way for me to spend my time.” This self-congratulatory talk about the power of photojournalism married to humanitarianism reflects the cartoonish narrative described by writer and photographer Asim Rafiqui, in which “narratives of evil appears-NGO acts-photojournalism documents-Western corporations divest-the black man is saved.” Of course what is left out of this narrative is the racism that has underpinned so much of humanitarianism. The idea of a universal Evil that human rights can stamp out erases history, politics, agency, and as Alain Badiou argues, specificity.

Both Haviv and Bruce stressed a desire to reveal everyday life and the humanity of each photographed subject. Both agreed that conflicts were never black and white and that it was the job of photojournalists to cover “the grey areas.” Bruce was allowed into Syria in 2013 under the auspices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Her photographs feature moving scenes of a funeral of a lieutenant in Latakia, a regime stronghold in Syria. In describing a powerful close-up of mourning relatives, Bruce explained that she wanted to show that “death happens on both sides of any story” and that “everything is complicated and grey.” While she relies on a humanistic frame to depict violence, such visual appeals to compassion completely disengage realities of power that underlie the horror. In aligning her camera lens with the Syrian regime, her audience is automatically brought into its sympathetic grip.

Liam Kennedy offered a similar critique of the iconic “Situation Room Photograph” (2011) that depicts President Obama and his team supposedly receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden. The “reality effect” of this documentary image portrays the group of leaders as tired, vulnerable, and therefore humanized. We must ask ourselves: What does it mean to humanize a powerful and violent regime? What are the ethics of sympathy?

In one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit, Bruce shot portraits of Syrian rebels in a state prison. In the panel, she describes it as a difficult situation in which it was impossible to know if their stories were true, evasive or scripted. The portraits of men with and without blindfolds is accompanied by texts detailing their crimes, from killing and raping, to training as suicide bombers for al Qaeda, and fighting for a global Islamic state. While these details might be true, it is easy to see how this project played into the hands of the Syrian regime, especially in 2013 when Bashar al-Assad pushed for the world to acknowledge that he was fighting a terrorist uprising. Further, as this blogger argues, the mug shot collection of scruffy Islamic men works to conjure images of the 9/11 hijackers within the American imagination. Bruce’s collection raises ethical questions on how the Syrian regime has played a role in curating these photographs, in both their production and reception. With hundreds of thousands of innocent people disappeared in Assad’s prisons, who’s “grey area” is Bruce attempting to depict?

Likewise, Haviv’s photos of the Peruvian Amazon focus on those in the margins of society, depicting individual stories of what it means to live under and participate in the degradation of the environment. And yet, by placing emphasis on the individual or on “everyday life,” does the photographer unintentionally divert attention away from the historical and political structures of power that create and uphold the realities depicted? Can photography capture the vast history of capitalist destruction inherent in narratives of climate change?

To quote Rafiqui once again, “Why not reveal the connections, the inter-relationships and the seemingly banal and ordinary desires of life – wealth, power, profit, [that] underpin what we call ‘war’?” It seems like a waste if photojournalism just shows us broken, bleeding bodies, interspersed with images of “everyday life” so that we can feel good about knowing that people experiencing violence are “just like us.” Can photojournalism instead show us how we got there and the politics that make each photographic moment possible? War is not just an act of violence in which both people and environments suffer. It is also “politics, greed, mendacity, power” and a “desire to colonize, to control, to reduce, to grab.” Why not speak about all these other things?

This month, Nicholas Mirzoeff compared the iconic photograph of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey to an image taken 60 years earlier of a young Emmet Till, an African American man lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mother Mamie Till Mobley insisted that the photograph of his broken body be photographed as a radical challenge to the invisibility of such violence at the time. Mirzoeff advocates that we “keep looking” at the picture of Aylan until the world can see the humanity in refugees. As we are bombarded daily with photos of refugees flooding into Europe, a critical conversation around the ethics of photojournalism and the right to see and be seen is urgently necessary.

The “Lost to History” exhibit and panel succeeded in raising more ethical questions than it answered. In many ways, it reiterated its own subheading – that photojournalism is bound to cover conflict in an “eternal present” in which assertions of universal humanity that are meant to rouse the outrage and opposition of the spectator may actually work to limit an understanding of real inequality. The frame of “the everyday” or “the grey area” by which the spectator can decode an image can just as readily serve as an abstraction, in which forms of military or economic power are absent and all lives are framed as equal regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, gender and other social determinations.

Perhaps Susan Sontag was correct when she wrote: “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more - and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” 

Feature Image: In the Syrian province of Latakia, a regime stronghold, a small village mourns the loss of a son killed in an ambush at the other end of the country. Here the brother of the deceased lieutenant comforts his mother during the funeral. September 30, 2013. (c) Andrea Bruce/NOOR

Shimrit Lee is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Her research concentrates on visual cultures of militarism with a focus on the commodification of war in international arms fairs, specifically in Israel/Palestine.