“You think it is me that you degrade now. It is not. It is you.”
This time last year I went to the World Press Photo exhibition for the second time. With few exceptions, the photography is both moving and confronting. Some photos were posed portraits, while others featured destroyed buildings in Gaza and Aleppo. The image that affected me most was a candid shot: a girl of seven or eight wailing over the corpse of her father at his funeral, her expression somehow strikingly adult, one of pure anguish.
The caption identified him as one of Assad’s soilders. I will not link to it, but it is an important photograph. I try to view all war through a lens that clearly acknowledges the humanity of all participants. In a war like Syria’s, where from the earliest days the reports were of the systematic torture and mutilation of dissenters and journalists, this is hard. That photo is important. The girl in it matters.
Yet photographs like this disturb me, and reveal perhaps the deepest unresolved conflict between my intuitions and my ethics. I feel compelled to seek out good photojournalism. It seems self-evident to me that one must cultivate an ability to confront the terrible suffering in the world, and a willingness to grapple with the complexity of the situations that bring it about. One must learn not to turn away.
There are, of course, multiple forms of media through which one might do this, with varying degrees of immediacy. I read more than I look at photographs. I do not watch videos. Even distant film of the tiny figures falling from the World Trade Centre distresses me. I am horrified at the thought of watching James Foley recite his scripted last words, at bearing witness to his degradation and his death. I feel, profoundly, that it would be a terrible violation for me to view that. And yet, as a consequentialist, I cannot explain this feeling. Who would I be violating? He is dead, and past all further harm.
The case is not so simple in that of the Syrian girl. She is, hopefully, still alive. One day she will be old enough to understand what it meant that there was a strange man with a camera at her father’s funeral. One day, perhaps, she will look upon her own face, twisted with grief, and know that thousands of people around the world have seen her that way, at that moment. How will she feel? Will she be harmed? Has she been harmed already? Perhaps such a concern trivial compared to the harm that the photograph documents. I don’t know.
The photographer cannot know the answers to these questions. Some of the most powerful photojournalism we have seen has been taken in situations where the consent of the subject is absolutely impossible. Once the photograph is taken, what are we participating in when we view it? Does it matter whether our motivations are pure or vouyeristic?
There is a link here, of course, with the issue of looking at leaked, explicit photos of people who have made it clear that they do not want the photos to be viewed. It seems clearer cut – the motivation to view such photos cannot be “pure”, although I would argue that it may take several forms, some more excusable than others. Jennifer Lawrence has, unquestionably, been harmed by what has happened this week. But given that she will never know the number of people who have viewed those photos, is she further harmed by any one individual choosing to look at them?
I don’t believe that she is, and although I would say anybody looking at the photographs is participating in degrading her, I would not go so far as to argue that they are assaulting her. I don’t find that claim coherent. She has been harmed, but her distress does not grow with each additional download. I would argue that the problem with viewing those photos is, perhaps ironically, not to do with its impact on her, but rather in what it reveals about the viewers.
There are, no doubt, simply teenagers out there who have a crush on Jennifer Lawrence and consequently find pictures of her especially exciting. This is the most innocent reason I can imagine somebody might have for viewing the photos, and although I hope those boys will have more empathy and a more nuanced understanding of privacy and consent when they’re older, I’m not especially concerned by that.
What I do find disturbing is what the demand for improperly obtained sexual media reveals, given that the internet contains more porn than anybody could watch if they devoted the rest of their lives to it. The fact that people go to the trouble of hacking women’s webcams for the sake of watching them get undressed for bed in the evenings indicates that there is a strong desire among some segment of the population to get off looking at women who don’t know they’re being watched, and wouldn’t want to be. Making a consequentialist case that those women have been harmed even if they never discover their observation is difficult, but making the case that that behaviour reveals a disturbing lack of empathy in the viewer is not.
We must be very careful. If one values empathy highly, it should be hard to walk through the world press photo exhibit. We should leave feeling shaken and questioning what it means to be human. We should struggle. If you can approach the video of James Foley the same way I approach photojournalism, you should be deeply disturbed, and saddened, by what you see. My suspicion is that a lot of people may have watched that video in a different spirit. Perhaps some of them have come to regret that. When we approach this type of media voyeuristically, whether the content is violent or sexual, we cultivate something ugly in ourselves. We are practicing indifference, slowly numbing ourselves to the humanity of others.
Whatever you do, you do to yourself.