Kicking the Can of Complicity Down the Road

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In 1993, photographer Kevin Carter took a picture of a starving child in Sudan that showed a vulture in the background. The picture caused quite the stir for a large variety of reasons. Specifically, the photographer faced accusations of not having come to the child’s aid. A little over a year later, Carter committed suicide. Part of the note he left read “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”

In 2016, Omran Daqneesh became just one of the thousands and thousands of other victims of the Syrian war. Rescued out of the ruins of a bombed-out house and taken to a nearby ambulance, a video and photographs showing the dazed five-year old sitting inside went around the world. Alex Myteberi, an American child roughly the same age, saw the images and sent a letter to his president who then went on to share it with the United Nations. The American boy got to meet his president.

I was unable to find information online of what happened to the Syrian boy. Of the Sudanese child we learn that “research seemed to reveal that the child did survive yet died 14 years later from malarial fever.”

Here, the obvious lessons aren’t necessarily the ones I’m after. But we might state some of them anyway. To begin with, two children who were at the center of so much attention in the (Western) world press, have now become mere cyphers, known for roles they played in iconic photographs. Such photographs can do a lot. But it would seem that more often than not they do something not necessarily for those depicted, but for those involved in a different capacity, whether it’s their makers or viewers. And it’s often viewers and makers fighting it out over what is being depicted — true to the spirit of the act of photography, by which you create an artifact out of something in the world.

We profess we’re interested in what is depicted. Often enough, though, we fight over the depiction, over how something is depicted — as if that and only that were always the deciding factor concerning what is depicted, over whether or not it is ethically sound to show something or someone depicted — as if not showing something somehow made a problem or an injustice go away. Hence the discussions around photography being exploitative, say.

This is not to say that photography is always harmless. Photography can be an act of exploitation, and we should talk about it. At the same time, given what photography is and what it does, photography that exploits someone or something often piles on: it’s an exploitation of the exploited. The history of photography is filled with examples of this.

What we do when we talk about the exploitation of photography is valid. Yet mostly, it avoids talking about the other exploitation, the more basic, larger, underlying one. We want to know that the starving Sudanese child did reach a feeding center. Young Alex Myteberi, though, wanted a bit more. He asked the most powerful man he knows of, the president, to invite the bombed-out child to his home. He didn’t ask whether Omran Daqneesh made it to a hospital, or whether he was given shelter somewhere (far away), he offered his own home. Unlike us grown ups, Alex Myteberi doesn’t know about the artifact that is the picture, yet. He is thus incapable of letting his concern for someone depicted stop somewhere along the chain of things, somewhere where it’s about the picture — and not what’s depicted and how what is depicted hints at a much larger injustice.

Another way of looking at all of this is to say that as viewers, we usually don’t want to be complicit. We do not want to face the consequences of our own involvement, even when that involvement is indirect. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to be responsible for that Sudanese child to die and to get eaten by the vulture — even though, in some indirect fashion, we Westerners are quite responsible for the fact that these kinds of conditions in Africa existed and still do. In much the same fashion, we don’t want to be responsible for the death of Syrian children.

Photographs like the ones discussed above can make an impact concerning our own not wanting to be complicit, or wanting to do something. A recent study just found that the publication and wide dissemination of a photograph showing another Syrian child, this one lying dead on a beach in Turkey, resulted in a spike of donations to the Red Cross. Using data from the Swedish branch, the study found that “the average number of daily donations to a Syrian refugee fund run by the Swedish Red Cross rose 100-fold” in the week after Alan Kurdi’s death. But the interest also faded very quickly again.

We might not even be aware of our complicity in so many injustices in this world. As long as we don’t get to see them (or their direct or indirect consequences), we’re not being made to face a reality we’d probably rather not deal with. Seeing makes the difference. Many statements can be made about the Syrian civil war or about the larger topic of refugees. But once they’re connected to the face of a five-year old child that was just pulled out of some rubble something snaps, and our emotions demand we care more than we usually do.

Often, there then will have to be some lashing out to be done. This might be directed at the photographer in question, a very popular mechanism (“How can they photograph, when they should help?”). If that is no option (it’s hard to do that if the injured boy is already sitting in an ambulance) our anger might be directed at the largest possible power that, ideally, can make the kind of well-meaning, yet innocent statements we crave (cue any one of Obama’s statements about Syria). We need to kick the can that says “complicit” and that has our names on it down the road. May it land wherever it does, as long as it’s not on our door steps, as long as we’re not reminded of our role, however direct or indirect it may be in whatever injustice is shown in a photograph.

The reality is that the world is a horribly complicated place. Somehow, we are responsible for a lot of things, whether we are aware of it or not. It is true, our responsibility might be small. But still, it exists. The gadgets or clothes we buy are made by people far away under often horrible circumstances. Our retirement money might be indirectly invested in companies that make a lot of money exploiting people (including, ironically, ourselves). Our leaders wax lyrically about how well-meaning they are, while doing the opposite of what they should be doing (interestingly, the neo-fascists openly admit their own cruelty, throwing our own disinterest back at us). This is a lot to deal with, and it’s just easiest not to deal with it at all.

But then come the photographs of the starving children, of people getting shot to pieces, of people dying in the rubble of a factory that made our cheap t-shirts. If photography does anything really well, it’s short-circuiting all these mechanisms we have established in our heads to keep the horrors away. Francis Bacon described his interest in his paintings as “record[ing] one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous system as one possibly can.” Photographs can operate along these lines, except that they connect something out in the world to our own feelings “as closely to one’s own nervous system” as possible. This is their power, and this is their curse.

We will never be able to solve all the world’s problems, especially not if we have only the kind of very limited power the 99% of us have. But, and this is where and how I want to conclude this, what photographs tell us about our own being involved, our own being complicit, in whatever minute way — we need to listen to that. We need to listen, because it’s pointless to blame the photographers, and it is pointless to ask of our leaders to solve our own problems (this will be even more obvious after 20 January, 2017). If our own complicity is small, our own attempts to do something might be as well.

But there need to be attempts.

The late John Berger concluded his 1972 essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” writing “Confrontation with a photographed moment of agony can mask a far more extensive and urgent confrontation. Usually the wars which we are shown are being fought directly or indirectly in ‘our’ name. What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to confront our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist, we have no legal opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name. To realise this and to act accordingly is the only effective way of responding to what the photograph shows. Yet the double violence of the photographed moment actually works against this realisation. That is why they can be published with impunity.”

Berger’s challenge, to come to the realization of what it is shown “and to act accordingly” still stands. That impunity must go. If it can’t go it must be diminished. It’s not enough any longer to have the same pointless arguments over this or that photograph being exploitative, all the while the larger exploitation it depicts remains unchanged.

(French: Sommes-nous complices? on verra plus tard…)