08 April 2008

The Emotional Power of Photography?

How, if at all, might photography work to inform political action, especially dissenting or oppositional political action? That is a seemingly intractable question. Is it simply because we cannot see outrageous practices and events and actions that we have no outrage to express? Here is a portion of an essay that was forwarded to me today. The author, surprisingly enough, is a political scientist whom I do not personally know:
The limitations placed on exposure to powerful images that might stir our deepest emotions would make a modern day Dr. Goebbels green with envy. The destruction of CIA torture tapes is but one example. We've only seen a fraction of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, pictures taken by those carrying out the atrocities. I'm not the first person to identify the grotesque parallel between the powerful images of police dogs unleashed on Iraqi prisoners and Nazi SS guards using attack dogs to guard death camp inmates. We know the Pentagon forbids media coverage of the remains of soldiers departing Ramstein Air Base in or coffins returning to Landstule regional medical center in Germany, which routinely receives horribly maimed soldiers from Iraq is off-limits for photos and reporters are closely monitored by military escorts. [...]

And therein resides both an intractable indictment and a vexing question. ... We know that photographers are routinely banned from the battle zone while others are pressured into self-censorship. But we might speculate on the powerful impact such images would evoke within American society, how our now well documented evolutionary and biological capacity for empathy might be engaged to pressure policymakers.
I have to say that while I think this question is crucially important, the analysis here seems overly simple. In the first place, our emotions are funny, not always reliable, things and it is unclear that empathy is what we need in politics - outrage surely, solidarity yes, empathy probably not. Our outrage and solidarity are both tied up with reason too. So the psychological issues at stake here are remarkably complex. In fact, I don't even think solidarity is an emotion.

Having said all that, even if we might identify plausible motivational and cognitive reactions to what John Berger calls "photographs of agony" there remains the massive political problem of directing and coordinating outrage in politically productive ways. I am glad that the author of this piece - Gary Olson - has put the issues on the table. But I think the analysis and discussion still has a considerable distance to go.



Blogger f:lux said...

This is an interesting post, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to organise a coherent response... but here goes.

It seems to me that it isn't only political in the sense that there is censorship from the powers that be mentioned in the quoted article, but in addition there is a kind of collusion from broadcast and published media - which control the arena in which the direction and coordination of "outrage in politically productive ways" might begin to take place, were the advertising revenues of the economically powerful not considered more valuable than the spending power of ordinary consumers?

Also, I wouldn't underestimate the power of empathy. Where do outrage and sense of solidarity come from if not stemming from empathy?

How can we know if, for whatever reason and by whomever, we are being denied access to images and information that might, emotionally and literally move us to react?

08 April, 2008 11:38  

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