The Power of Images

Every so often, for one reason or another, someone suggests that the flood of shocking images we see may damage our ability to feel empathy. It’s an argument which is particularly popular in relation to images of fictional violence when explanations and excuses for violent actions are being sought but there’s also the question of whether the images presented to us by news media just desensitise us, making us care less rather than making us violent.

After cameras and film cameras were first invented they were often used for war photography, bringing the reality of war into the fashionable salons. War artists can produce extremely powerful images but photography is more immediate and a more trusted way of capturing the imagery of war, although it would be naive to ignore the use of photography for propaganda. Of course we know that photos can be faked but on the whole photos, and later films, are their own monument which keep history alive. There’s no hiding from reality and pretending that these aren’t real people. Without films of concentration camps could we really even believe that people did that to other people? They turn numbers of dead so high that we can barely comprehend them into real people. There’s front line footage which does the same, turning millions of military deaths into millions of dead people.

So much has changed since the early days of photography. I always think of the Viet Nam photo of a group of people running from a napalm attack, with a naked child in the foreground as some kind of turning point where photo journalism got rawer and politically more honest. I decided not to include the photo here but if it doesn’t immediately spring to l mind, you can see it on Wikipedia. And then eventually, after years of tv footage and the switch to colour photos in print, came digital and the availability of images and films streamed online. And then came another event too huge for our minds to process it as real. On September 11, I got back from court to find an email from another trainee with a link. I clicked on it and thought “so what? Another disaster film. Why does she think I’d be interested?” Even once I realised what I was seeing, my mind couldn’t wrap itself around it. Yet later, when the decision was made to publish a photo of an person falling through the air, the horror was humanised. I’ll never forget that photo. For a lot of people it’s the symbol of the human suffering that took place in the Twin Towers. It was a heartwrenching illustration of people who had had all hope stolen from them and realised the only control they had left over their lives lay in the power to decide the manner and timing of their own death. It’s strange. The photo is indelibly etched into my memory so I was surprised to come across an article called The Most Famous 9-11 Photograph No-one Has Seen. Initially, I thought the photo had crossed a line too. Now I see it differently. Now it’s not disrespectful. I see the pathos and think it’s right that we have an image which brings home the real loss that day. On 9/11 this year Twitter was full of businesses tweeting 9/11 themed special offers so I’d say we’ve never needed The Falling Man more. The article is an interesting one and makes another interesting point. 9/11 was only 12 years ago but people didn’t have camera phones and there was no Twitter. Fast forward to last year’s Sandy storm and suddenly instagram and Twitter were full of photos of empty shelves in shops and people taking selfies in darkened homes. If you give people cameras they won’t always record the profound for posterity. Still, images and videos taken by private individuals can add to our understanding of events and even have evidentiary value. An example which springs to mind is the death of Ian Tomlinson in London. They can also confuse things and result in the spread of misinformation, as we saw after the Boston bombing.

The most powerful images of war, terrorist attacks and accidents are the ones which show us a human face. The same could be said of natural disasters. Show a trail of devastation and it’s not quite comprehensible, not quite real. Show the people caught up in it and that changes. People are programmed to relate best to individual stories. We feel more empathy for identifiable people than we do for numbers. I’m sure there are other sources for this but Dan Ariely discussed it in Upside of Irrationality and pointed out that charities show individuals who have been or can be helped by them in their advertising because they know that statistics and generalisations don’t engage people who see the adverts. This clip’s a short discussion of the theory.

The grind of horror seems to keep growing, image after image. Stills and video footage of man made and natural disasters taken with mobiles day after day. It sometimes seems like there are no limits any more. A few years back a local paper here had to apologise after publishing a photo (taken with a camera phone) of a dismembered body at Stevenage train station after someone died on the tracks. Have we become immune? Have images lost the power to shock? There has been more than enough horror to go round recently and that’s what got me thinking about all of this. It got me thinking about how images are delivered to us and whether the medium we see them on affects our response.

In August someone I follow suggested following Patrick Kingsley for his coverage of what was happening in Egypt. It was a general suggestion – he didn’t say it to me specifically. I did what he suggested. I looked at Patrick Kingsley’s profile page. Then I opened the photos. Then I sat with tears rolling down my face. I could only stand to look at a few photos before I had to stop. In a strange way, I’m glad images still have the power to shock me that much but a few days later the Syrian chemical attack was on the tv news. Children were writhing, dying and zipped into body bags on screen. I didn’t feel nothing. I felt pity, anger but I didn’t have the same visceral response. Go back in time to another image from Syria: I think it was just before Christmas, after Sandyhook, when many people were tweeting about both things. Simon Ricketts shared a photo on Twitter of a girl in a hospital. Her head was bandaged, at least one of each of her arms and legs was too – the arm was in a cast. There was blood – deep grazes? And she was grinning. I can’t remember what he said in the tweet. I think it was a dig (although probably mildly put because he’s a nice tweeter) comparing her joy, and bravery, to someone else but it’d take forever to find it again. That photo, another Syrian child, hit me hard, hard enough to mention it again now months later. Is there a difference in how images affect me based on the way I receive them? Photos on Twitter are potentially more graphic than tv but not by much these days. An alternative explanation occurred to me. TV is a place of horrors. Even newspaper front pages contain expected horror but a mobile phone? A mobile phone is so much more than a place to look at news. It contains our personal photos and allows us into others’. It holds our families, friends, lovers and pets. It holds scenes of beauty that we snapped in an instant. Through apps like Twitter, Facebook and instagram we share each other’s moments. To some extent, at some internal level, I think a mobile is a “safe” place. It’s like having a photo album with us all the time. Maybe this makes what we see on them more personal somehow. And if it does, I’d have to say that’s a good thing.

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