25 February 2006

Do Photographs of Cruelty and Suffering Numb Us?

In his incisive essay (posted below) about why Salon.com decided to publish more photos from abu Ghraib Walter Shapiro writes:

"... The torture photographs that were published when the prisoner-abuse scandal first exploded have lost their power to shock. We have all seen the pictures repeatedly: a pyramid of unclothed prisoners; a naked detainee cowering in front of snarling dogs; captives wearing punitive hoods that seem borrowed from a medieval inquisition; American soldiers grinning over Iraqi dead bodies and, always, that chillingly ironic thumbs-up sign.
Eventually this visual repetition numbs the senses. ..."

One of the reasons that I found Shapiro's essay interesting is that it reiterates this familiar claim, that repeated exposure to photographs of cruelty and suffering has a causal effect - namely to diminish one's capacity to respond, to feeel outraged and so forth. This is a familiar claim made by Susan Sontag, among others and explored with greater subtlety by Susie Linfield in a series of essays I mentioned some time ago. It places a heavy expectation on photographic images. And I think that expectation is unfair. The problem, in my view, is that the mainstream media and the politicians in what passes for an opposition party in the US have not used these images of torture to place pressure on the Bush administation. Photographs by themselves do nothing. They are powerful, when they are, as instriuments in the hands of political actors. The problem resides with the politcal actors not with the implements that they refuse to wield.

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1 Comments:

Blogger me thoughts said...

well i totally agree with the fact that repeatedly exposing us to photographs of sufffering and torture does numbs our senses...but the association of photographs(still pictures)with that of television (moving pictures) is high...and peaple are not desensetized necessarily by repeated photographs but by television which to us seems unreal or made up soooo....

14 March, 2006 07:35  

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