On the Ethics of Representation: Missing the Point Entirely
Today The Guardian carried this column by Sean O'Hagan on the morality of photojournalism. His ruminations were prompted by this series of photographs by Farah Abdi Warsameh that won 2nd place in the "general news" category at the World Press Photo awards. (I've lifted one of the photos above.) The photos show a man being buried up to his chest and then stoned to death by a group of masked men. The man who was killed (should we say executed?) was named Mohamed Abukar Ibrahim and he had confessed to committing adultery. The judgment and execution, according to news reports, were carried out by an armed fundamentalist rebel group called Hizbul Islam. The rebels forced hundreds of local residents to watch the performance. I say performance because this is clearly political theater - horrific, no doubt - but no less theatrical for that. The rebels - who are party to a proxy war in the failed state known as Somalia - are trying to pacify the locals by terrorizing them.
O'Hagan engages in a hand-wringing exercise about the ethics of the photographer and the voyeurism of 'we' the viewers. In the process he, predictably enough, invokes that arch-moralist Susan Sontag. Against that background he raises a set of absurd worries about consent and communication between the doomed man and the photographer. I find this stunning. This is, after all a war zone; and it is entirely likely that the photographer was himself not given any choice than to record the events. This was theater after all. And repugnant as this execution is, it is one part of a broader political and military conflict. In closing, O'Hagan quotes Sontag:
"There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be."This is Sontag at her most ridiculous. But even by these standards there is a case to be made for publishing these images. Might it not be possible that viewers "could learn from" them? We could learn that this was a terrorist act. We could learn that the 'government' against whom the rebel groups is, in fact, rebelling is sponsored by the U.S. and other western nations. We could learn how quickly many of our fellow citizens were willing to use these images to condemn "Islam." I'm sure O'Hagan could come up others if only he'd stop wringing his hands and ask questions.