When Pictures Obscure

It's said a picture is worth a thousand words, driving home an entire story with instant, lasting impact. But which thousand, what story, and with what impact? 


It's a question that has been asked a lot, lately, as the debate has raged--even within the electronic pages of this very website--over President Obama's decision not to release more of the infamous "torture photos." But an article about a photo exhibition that just closed at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris this past week made me think about the subject from yet another angle. 

"Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography" (headed next to South America) focuses not on insider policy-making or accountability from photographs of dramatic events and people ... although a photograph from Abu Ghraib is included in the exhibition. It looks at the mixed and complex issues involved in how a wider public views images. Why is one photograph controversial and another not? If a photographer is in a disaster zone, is it inhuman to photograph the carnage instead of trying to help? In viewing riveting images, when are we seeking a better understanding of the world--or having our understanding of important world events expanded--and when are we being voyeurs?  

And somewhere in all those tough questions, a realization that the photographer or publisher doesn't, in the end, control how the public or world will interpret or react to a given photo. Alex Gibney (who has written some powerful posts--well worth reading--about the abuses and torture he discovered at Bagram prison in Afghanistan) took issue recently with Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker writer whose articles and book about the Rwanda genocide brought the horror home to America, for arguing in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece that while releasing the first round of photos from Abu Ghraib was important, releasing more would be counter-productive. 

Gourevitch's point was that while the initial photos were important, because they proved the abuses were taking place, more photos of the lower-level individuals inflicting the abuse ran the danger of not only angering the Muslim world, but also distracting attention from the now-really-important issue. Which isn't whether the abuses took place, but who, far higher up on the chain of command, issued the orders that allowed them to happen? No corporal or captain is involved in making policy, or abuses a prisoner if those above them, who do make the policy, issues orders against it. But the photos are so riveting, they might obscure that non-visual, and more complex, part of the story. 

Gibney disagrees, arguing that editors will use discretion with the photos, and that we need to see all the photos to see how widespread the abuses and breakdown of command were, so we can hold those responsible accountable. Of Gourevitch's more nuanced argument, he says, "one can get hung up on the duality of semioticians until, one day, you wake up and nothing means anything anymore." 

As it happens, I majored in semiotics. And while I never want to read another Foucault essay--which is to say, I'm with Gibney on the arcane nature of some theorists in the field--semiotics at its core is actually quite practical. And quite relevant to the discussion. At its core, semiotics says that no matter what message I send out into the world, whether in image or print, or spoken word ... I do not control how it is interpreted. And it will be interpreted quite differently by different people, depending on their backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences. 

Gibney wants the pictures released to achieve a particular goal he believes they will achieve. Gourevitch--who has some experience in trying to present horror in a compelling way to the world---is less convinced that the photos will achieve the goal that those who want them released hope they will. The public, and the world, will react in uncontrollable ways to the photos. Which is one of the points of the "Controversies" exhibit. The public may not view the photos and make the link to demanding accountability from the commanders and politicians who set the policy. They may remain riveted on the photos as voyeuristic passers-by view a car wreck, or demand the particular people pictured be punished, instead. The general public, even here in the States, is funny that way. 

But the Times article on the exhibition raised one other important point, as well. Not only can stark, shocking images divert the public's attention to a detail, rather than a complex, systemic problem that led to that captured moment in time ... graphic photos can sometimes detract, rather than attract, attention to a horror. Writer Michael Kimmelman talks about Susan Sonntag's reaction to seeing photos of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "A part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead," Sonntag said. "To see something," Kimmelman concludes, "is to face the prospect of becoming inured to it." 

I think that's true. And I think those of us who have been in conflict zones, or have seen tragedy come alive before our eyes, have to remember that what is bearable--and even critically important--to us, having seen it unfold in person, can--in too large a dose--be too much for someone far away, who has no context or relief in which to place the pieces we want to show them. And so, the reaction can often be to shut down. To become numb. To turn away. What do we do with all those photos of bashed-in children's heads from Rwanda? Or those horrible images of rape and abuse by our own soldiers? Yet another photo? And another? We go numb. 

It's a survival mechanism. Soldiers learn to deal with too much death the same way. In much the same way as, having lost 25 friends over the years to airplane crashes (a liability that comes with the territory of having worked in the high-risk end of the industry), I no longer feel grief or horror when one of those dreaded phone calls come. "Who is it this time?" I ask, as I feel my emotions shut down and pull back somewhere safer inside me, until I can find a way to process the unprocessable. Our psyches have safety valves in them that shut down when we are faced with more than we can handle. 

Which is all just to say that, among the vast complexities that come with how we photograph humans, and how we distribute those images ... it's important to think about not only how the international public will actually interpret what they see ... but also how they will react to it. And if the goal is to focus people on the fact that a very complex horror did occur, and generate an emotional and political reaction that heads resolution in a productive direction ... nuance, context, and semiotics matter. Like cayenne pepper in a recipe, a certain amount of graphic intensity may be essential to make a point, but too much can lead to a reaction very different than what the creator intended. 


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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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