The Battle over Visibility

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If I had to name what I consider the most defining aspect of photography today, it’s visibility: who or what gets seen? Who has the power or means to decide that they can be seen? These questions are of utmost importance not just because the internet has turned into an almost purely visual medium but also because of the history of photography and because of our growing awareness of how who or what can be seen in the past was severely limited (and in part still is today).

It might seem strange to talk about visibility when it would seem as if every photograph, however mundane or irrelevant, is now being shared on social media. But what I consider the battle over visibility typically is not very far away — it’s often just not apparent, simply because some photographs don’t get seen.

Take, for example, Instagram’s incessant and blatant censorship of images that focus on the female body (see, for example, this article). This is a very good example of the battle over visibility, in which case an anonymous corporation decides what gets seen and what not. Like most battles, it’s completely asymmetric. “Offending” users (who more often than not happen to be women) have their work removed, and occasionally their accounts get terminated or they get shadow banned. Instagram makes it notoriously hard to deal with such problems — clearly by design. They have the power, you, the user, don’t.

So the battle over visibility needs to be looked at explicitly with the aspect of power in mind. Power — and the often severe imbalance between involved parties as far as power is concerned – must be a part of a discussion around this topic. Power here contains a multitude of separate factors, though. Someone might have power over whether or not a picture can be seen, but that picture (or its maker) might have a power of its own, maybe even over those deciding what gets seen. Given the many factors that might enter here, I believe that such discussions should never only be about whatever or whoever is in a picture. The larger contexts have to be considered.

Please note that I’m using a plural here, contexts: there’s the context the picture was taken in. There’s the context in which it is being shown. There’s the context in which discussions around the picture might play out. These contexts could all fall into one, they could be very strictly separate, or they could be partly overlapping. For this simple reason alone, discussions around photography are almost never served with a one-size-fits-all solution. It is only the most extreme cases, such as, for example, child pornography, that allow for very obvious and strict solutions (a clear and unwavering prohibition in this particular example).

Thankfully, the history of photography contains a large number of precedents that can — or should — be considered. As a medium, photography has been reflecting societies’ underlying values ever since it first appeared on the scene. I here mean the values expressed in the pictures, which often are at odds with lofty pronouncements. (Any time I hear someone say “this is not who we are” it seems absolutely clear to me that whatever “this” is expresses exactly who they are, whether they like it or not.)

Photographs have been used for a large number of emancipative purposes just as they have played a part in humanity’s absolutely worst excesses. It’s obvious that the problems or outright sins of the past must not be repeated. Just to pick one example, in light of the role photography has played in the larger history of colonialism, there are many places in the world where knowledge of what or who has been photographed before (and how) is of utmost importance. It is the photographer who exercises power first, regardless of whether or not consent of a subject was obtained: she or he decides what the resulting picture(s) will look like. That’s where it starts, and that’s why anyone photographing in, for example, Africa better be aware of what their camera can do (as far as I can tell, this is quite clear to many people living in Africa, but even then discussions might arise, such as, for example, concerning some of Pieter Hugo’s pictures).

It might be tempting to conclude that it’s best to hand all the power to those depicted. But as it turns out that’s not necessarily the best solution. With our free societies at an increasing risk by neo-fascist or authoritarian parties or politicians, photographs can and probably should be used as tools to continue the struggle to maintain free societies. After all, if you give Donald Trump or any of the other authoritarians the power to decide what can be seen, you’d basically end up in a situation comparable to North Korea or China. How or why that would be a problem is probably obvious. Free societies cannot allow for censorship to occur.

What this means is that the taking and dissemination of photography often involves a power struggle, with possible conflicting interests playing out. In fact, it might be impossible to satisfy all interests involved. In the case of control of photographs of people in power, there not only is the photographer, there’s the photographed subject, there’s the editor/publisher (these two might be engaged in their own power struggle), and there are the recipients (or audience even though I’m not too fond of the word since it implies passivity). If the recipients are the people who might vote for (or against) the photographed subject, the situation is different than if they’re not, because on top of photography’s power aspect there now is the political power exerted. Talking about power in photography, something that I believe is very important and necessary, can become fairly complex.

Maybe it would help to look at an example. In early 2019, terrorists attacked a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. The New York Times and other Western new outlets decided to publish very graphic pictures of the aftermath, including an image of four of the victims, still sitting at a table. “African victims of atrocities such as yesterday often get their death displayed for consumption with little to no regard for their privacy or the grief of their family members.” James Siguru Wahutu (now an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication) is being quoted by the BBC, “This would never happen during a mass shooting or terror event in the US.” We all know it wouldn’t. What’s more, as Kainaz Amaria (an editor at noted, the New York Times coverage “stands alongside decades of visual coverage exploiting the pain and suffering of black and brown folks.”

What makes this particular case so interesting is that the New York Times editors responsible for the situation appear to have been completely ignorant of both of these aspects, namely the very obvious double standard concerning the publication of pictures of gun violence and the fact that over the course of the history of photography, “black and brown folks” (Amaria) have been denied the same rights as white people when it comes to how they are/were being depicted (obviously, this denial reflects the larger power situation). Consequently, the refusal to take these aspects into consideration simply mirrored how colonialists would have approached the situation: these people don’t know, but we do.

In addition, there is no connection between the images’ recipients in the West and between those who lost their lives. US recipients might have some interest in general world news, but they have no involvement in the situation whatsoever. They are, in other words, the most remote consumers possible: the only consumption involved is that of the news. Contrast this with possible photographs of mass shootings in the US: here, viewers might not only actually personally know someone involved, they also vote for or against the people who politically enable mass shootings (through their refusal to pass sensible gun-control laws), and they might end up being the next victims if they somehow ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consequently, if any of the pictures needed to be seen in the US, it’s not those of unfortunate victims in Kenya, it’s of victims of gun violence at home.

Of course, the question then immediately revolves around the issue why such photographs should be shown. This is probably a question for which a good answer is impossible to come by. And this question is yet another factor that needs to be considered on top of everything mentioned above.

Despite the complications involved here, I think the question of power always ought to play some role in this discussion. Photographs have a form of power, however limited its duration might be. Being able to see or being made to see does mean something — as does forcing people to see something.

The Holocaust provides maybe the most extreme example. Maintaining an awareness of it and remembering those who lost their lives has been tied to acts of seeing and pictures very closely. “Escorted by American military police,” an article published in The Guardian on 18 April 1945 begins, “a thousand of the citizens of Weimar marched six miles through lovely country to the Buchenwald concentration camp yesterday.” They were brought there to see: “the crematorium with the blackened frames of bodies still in the ovens and two piles of emaciated dead in the yard outside, through huts where living skeletons too ill or weak to rise lay packed in three-tier bunks” and more. Photographs from the camps were published all over the world. To this day, photographs play an important role — for example, the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem features photographs prominently (it’s a profoundly moving experience to be there).

Another — related — example from recent German history: a 1995 exhibition by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research that traveled all over Germany helped establish the role of Nazi Germany’s army in the Holocaust and war crimes (before then, the narrative had been that crimes had only been committed by the SS, and the army had acted honorably — that was obviously absurd, but people wanted to believe in it). Again photographs played a major role, showing German soldiers in the acts of committing horrible atrocities. Despite some minor controversies (German conservatives attacked the exhibition because there had been some inaccuracies — foreshadowing the “fake news” mechanisms used today) the exhibition managed to permanently change how Germans thought of their past — older family members might have been in the Wehrmacht (my grandfathers were).

If things were this simple we probably wouldn’t have as many discussions. If, in other words, photographs could always easily make us change our behaviour or re-think our assumptions the world of photography would be a happier place (or rather, knowing photoland I think people might just be grumpy about something else). Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. For example, in Europe, cigarette packages features graphic photographs of some of the medical effects of smoking — yet people still buy them.

Maybe this comes in part down to what power one grants photographs over oneself. If one is a smoker, say, the depiction of lung cancer or whatever else — that’s obviously someone else’s lung (I don’t smoke so I don’t know how people rationalize this particular behaviour). This would go back to the example of the mass shootings where it’s kind of OK to look at victims far away, but you don’t want to see the ones in your own backyard.

Whatever the psychological mechanism might be that control our behaviour when we’re exposed to photographs, in light of the fact that we are visual creatures and that we do respond to photographs the battle over visibility is an indicator: The existence of those power struggles over certain photographs indicate that these pictures have a power of their own, and that power grows exponentially the closer a viewer is to what is being depicted (“closer” here not necessarily spatially, but mostly psychologically).

It is really this particular aspect that I feel also needs to be taken into consideration when discussing whether or not to show a photograph: are the intended recipients involved in what they’re about to see? If they’re not then maybe the photograph is of a lot less importance than if they are. If people need to see the consequences of their actions, however indirect they might be, then that fact must play a role in discussions over whether or not to show a photograph.

Seen this way, both the photograph of Alan Kurdi and the more recent one of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter had to be published in Europe and the US, respectively. These three died the same miserable death by drowning while trying to reach a safe haven, prosperous countries that have more than enough resources than are needed to take care of those most in need. These deaths are the indirect results of the cruel policies by lawmakers and governments in Europe and the US — and they were and are in fact widely seen that way.

Whether or not publishing such photographs then will result in any change is besides the point. If there’s change then that’s obviously great. If there’s not, then that only means that those who are willing to help need to continue their struggle.

Unfortunately, the decision to publish these photographs comes at a cost, a cost borne by the families of the dead. The cost might also include publishing yet another photograph where the victims of disaster are “black and brown folks” (Amaria).

It’s obviously easy for me to write about this cost, given that I’m a white guy. But I’m also a German, and I know the role photographs have been playing in making my own country towards confront its own horrible past. This particular process is not even done, yet. For example, with the exception of the Holocaust the amount of destruction Germany caused in Poland during World War 2 is still not acknowledged to the extent that it needs to be. Whatever future contributions there will be, I suspect photographs will play a significant role (especially in light of the time passed). And I also suspect that there will be a battle over those photographs, just like there was one over the Wehrmacht pictures.

The more photographs are being fought over, the likelier it is that they will have power over us. That power might be distributed in unequal ways, and exercising the power might come at unequal costs. Whatever one’s decision might be regarding whether to take, publish, or look at a photograph — one always needs to keep all these different aspects in mind and, in particular, neither discount one’s own power nor the costs borne by other people.