Photography As Witness, But Should We Look?

I recently purchased a book in a charity shop. I bought it because it contained a series of essays by well respected writers on photography. David Campany, Geoffrey Batchen, Nancy K. Miller and Susan Meiselas amongst them. The title of the book is Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis and I bought it exactly seven days after Hamas attacked Israel.

It is intrinsically an academic book written for other academics and those studying photography. I presume that the charity shop had been given it by someone who had completed their studies. It contains images that are disturbing, difficult to look at and which illustrate man’s inhumanity to their fellow man, woman or child. If I am honest I don’t know why I bought it, other than because I recognised the names of some of the contributors. It just seemed to be the right thing to do, when in the previous seven days I had been bombarded with exactly the type of images that the book attempts to deconstruct, explain and in some cases defend. That photographic bombardment has not stopped as the physical bombardment of Gaza has continued.

On the back of the book Ellen Tolmie, a Senior Photography Editor for UNICEF says this, “Picturing Atrocity is an excellent examination of the dilemmas implicit in photography’s representation of human suffering, whether caused by torture, war, poverty, the political chaos and neglect that multiplies the toll from natural disasters, or other gross rights violations” Bruce Wallis the Chief Curator at the International Centre of Photography, New York comments that “every photograph of such an event is a bit of high-level propaganda in a moralised political argument, encouraging the viewer to bear witness.”

I think it would be accurate to relate both of these comments to the images we have been seeing coming out of both Israel and Gaza over the past weeks. Of course there is a history to this, a long and contentious history. I am not suggesting that the images we are seeing have suddenly come out of nowhere. That similar images have not been seen before. Just a few months ago our social media streams and television screens were filled with images just as shocking and challenging coming out of Ukraine. I can remember judging the Word Press Photo Multimedia awards some years ago and having to watch an Isis beheading as one of the submissions documented the very early days of that terrorist organisation.

Photography has always seen the documentation of atrocity as one of its main functions. It is an area of work that provides the world with a visual history that cannot be denied and the photographer with a sense of mission and relevance. A feeling that their work has a seriousness to it and a reason to exist. Of course, we know of specific images that bring the truth of such history into question, but in general the still photograph is accepted by the unquestioning populace as being true. That of course has always been a serious issue for photography, but is particularly relevant in the new world of artificial intelligence. Context and intention can be manipulated or created and the photographic image can be presented to the viewer as a piece of propaganda just as Wallis states. It is at this point that our preconceived beliefs can be confirmed or challenged. Either way the photograph can develop a seriously dangerous power.

If we have no pre-conceived beliefs or knowledge the viewer provides fertile ground for that manipulation to take place. This can be equally dangerous as in this case we need to maintain a sense of cynicism concerning what we are shown. We need to question the photograph and the publisher.

The engaged, experienced photographic viewer is I believe in danger of becoming both desensitised to an image of atrocity and sucked into an academic dissection of its contextual importance. An awareness of these issues is essential to ensure that the visceral impact of an image is not lost. However, the images I have been seeing do not lack that visceral quality which makes us look for long enough to understand what we are seeing but not too long to experience a sense of voyeurism. This is a feeling I have had throughout my life. Images from the concentration camps of the 1940s, from Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Sarajevo, Afghanistan and 9-11. Now it is Gaza and Israel.

In the introduction to Picturing Atrocity Jay Prosser poses a question and provides an answer that I often consider, “Why look at pictures of atrocity? We don’t have a choice. We can’t help but see them anyway… we live in an ever-expanding world of images.” We also seem to live in an ever expanding world of conflict and the images that record that conflict are now in our smartphones, in our pockets, our bags and our hands. We cannot ignore them.

Their proliferation will not slow or cease, in fact the speed of their dissemination will only increase and however difficult it may be to accept this fact and the facts they show, we must continue to look. To accept the importance of such documents to our understanding of the world.

We must not accept these images as truth but we must explore the possibility of them telling us ‘a’ truth from an objective perspective. That is the responsibility of the photographer and the viewer of the photograph.

Image: A man takes a photo in front of a destroyed Israeli tank near the border with the Gaza Strip on October 7.  STRINGER/REUTERS

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

Scott’s next book is Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is on sale February 2024.

© Grant Scott 2023


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