Atrocity Photographs, Dignity, and Human Vulnerability

. . . the dignity of the victims cannot be “given by the photographer” . . . ; it must inhere in their own stoicism or defiance, and it is, in a sense, their gift to us.

—John Benthall1

Harrowing images of death, injury, and of people in various states of distress, terror, and vulnerability circulated by humanitarian organizations, memorial museums, and exhibits seek to encourage empathy with disempowered victims. Such images, in the form of amateur snapshots, photojournalism, and art photography of atrocities, are now pervasive.2 Critics contend that these images “constitute political space” and that they fashion the suffering global humanity with whom Western spectators are supposed to feel solidarity.3 There exists a great deal of commentary on atrocity photography—especially on those images most formally accomplished—because of its centrality to politics, although the relationship between images and politics is vexed and the subject of considerable debate. Much of this discussion seeks to link affective response (by which I mean often unconscious response filtered through the cognitive processes by which feeling may be articulated) and political recognition in a variety of ways: from the instrumental methods by which Western media shape responses to distant others to theoretical discussions about the way that photographs make human rights claims in a Kantian aesthetic tradition that calls upon viewers’ faculties of judgment.4

The purpose of this essay is not to take sides in these kinds of analyses or to interpret photographs. Rather, I wish to explore the fundamental assumptions that underpin discourses on atrocity photographs, including most centrally the idea that images objectify photographed subjects or traumatize viewers.5 My aim is thus to analyze the mostly unexamined presumptions that construct these discourses, in particular the affective investment in a particular concept of human dignity as bounded, whole, and metaphorically upright. All the discourses about atrocity photography assume that images of violated human beings are ethically problematic in some basic way, and their arguments, including affirmative views of such pictures, proceed from their interpretation of this problem. The bridge from affect to political recognition is fragile and always complicated by the specter of aversion, recoil, and numbness. Discourses on atrocity photography thus pit important if recent concepts of photography’s ostensibly transformative if vexed political function—to “bear witness,” “never again”—against an aversion to the display of violated human dignity whose sources are psychic and cultural. It is impossible even to conceive a “genre” or “genres” of atrocity photography in the post-1945 period without exploring the basic cultural assumptions that construct the terms of discourse about the images.

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