09 March 2010

On the Ethics of Representation: Missing the Point Entirely

From: Stoned to Death, Somalia, 13 December.
Photograph © Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP.

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.

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Blogger Tom White said...

I find this hand wringing quite strange. When I was in my early twenties it was seeing photographs of women who had been burned by acid thrown in their faces that jolted me into thinking that perhaps I might want to do social documentary photography. At that time I was in art school and photographing London's music scene. I kept up on current events and had seen plenty of photographs of war and disaster but when I saw those pictures by Shafiqul Alam Kiron they told me about something I never knew existed. I learned a hell of a lot that day. It set me on the path I am now on. Although I don't travel to conflict zones, chase disasters or photograph such disturbing issues (at the moment) I have plenty of colleagues who do and I learn from them constantly. Everyone should see these images. I remarked to Marcus Bleasdale at a presentation of his latest book on the Congo - The Rape Of A Nation that I wished I could do more to affect the issue than just buy the book. His response was quick and simple; 'You could write to your MP [British Member of Parliament]'.

Of course, I thought, how stupid of me. There is always something we can do. It is the job of us 'voyeurs' (both photographers and viewers of photographs) to pressure the people who can do something about these issue. To use the example of Marcus Bleasdale again, he is very active in trying to get his photographs into the hands and on the desks of those politicians and organisations who might be able to do something about the war in the Congo, and he is not the only photographer to take up the role of an activist.

What I hope for in viewing pictures such as Farah Abdi Warsameh's from Somalia is that it would prompt us all to become activists. Remember, there is always something we can do. The question is not if we can, but what we can.

10 March, 2010 11:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know, Jim. There is something very suspicious about this particular set of images. The photographer is not a professional from Agence VU -- he's a local Muslim Somali. These local guys are shady amateurs who have an "in" with the thugs. They hang out with the thugs, snapping pics and selling them to the AP (they probably give the thugs a cut, too). Most of those pics are frauds -- some random guy kneeling against a wall pointing an RPG at an imaginary target. It's not inconceivable that this photographer breached some serious ethical lines to get these pics. In fact, I'm almost sure he did.

10 March, 2010 14:13  
Blogger tim atherton said...

Interesting to compare the hand wringing to Don McCullin's take on his career making such photographs (which, among other things, inspired activism among a good few people to say the least)


10 March, 2010 14:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D ~ I am not so sure. The photographer works for AP (freelance, no doubt) so there is some, albeit limited, credibility there. But according to the news reports the rebels (already well known for being brutal thugs) had rounded up several hundred locals to witness the execution. It seems pretty predictable that they might also round up a photographer to publicize their handy work as well. I suspect that that is the sort of invitation one does not refuse.

10 March, 2010 21:32  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Tim - Thanks for the heads up re: the McCullin piece. He seems to me to be a remarkable man. And you comment about the spur to engagement seems right to me too. So, I stole your idea and used it for a follow-up post. ~ JJ

10 March, 2010 22:18  

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