When it comes to political violence, we want witnesses and demand sacrifice, and sometimes the two come together. Every day, professional witnesses get into position to show us what is happening far away and out of sight. We want to see the broken bodies and sorrowful faces of those who do not have our privileges or protections. We want to be connected to these unfortunates through images. Why? Because we feel responsible to them, and we like feeling responsible for them. Their suffering gives us a context for our comforts and a distant focus for our empathy.
The rules for this exchange are remarkably inflexible. We want those who take on the work of witnessing to show us things in the right order and in a certain light, within strict rules or propriety. It is permissible to tease the edges of these proprieties in fact, we reward such flirtations with prizes but not to be too insistent about it. An excess of truth can be a dangerous thing. Or, as T.S. Eliot had it in a poem about redemption, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence is a threnody for South African photographer Kevin Carter, a committed witness who became a tragic sacrifice and a scapegoat for our guilty desire to see images of others’ suffering.
Blaming the photographer who makes these images is like blaming the soldier for what’s going on in Iraq. The photographer and the soldier are our representatives, our surrogates. We put them in position to do our bidding. The troops didn’t start the war and they don’t decide how it is prosecuted. Photojournalists take the kind of pictures that they know they can sell to news organizations, who sell them to us. Kevin Carter wouldn’t have gone to Sudan on his own. We put him there. We put him in front of that starving child, and then accused him od moral detachment for making the image we wanted him to make. Where is our moral engagement in this? Where is our complicity? And where is our forgiveness?
David Levi Strauss
Excerpt from his essay in the FOTOFEST2006 Catalogue