Wander My Friends

I had a Twitter discussion with Alanna Shaikh regarding pictures she posted on her wall of shame. The ads, marketing, and ex-pat no-nos is fine. They bring attention to things that are wrong with development and aid work. She also had an image up of a child, who appeared to be a burn victim or mine victim or some other unnatural cause. I said it shouldn’t be up there because it only perpetuates the problem. Her response was that “someone needs to call that woman out” and “Re: gaze. My thought was the horse was already out of that barn.” It seems like a reasonable assumption. If the damage is already done – if the picture has already been taken – what’s the harm in posting it one more time?

Take a look at Eddie Adams’s case. He took one of the most influential photographs during the Vietnam War, commonly known as “Vietcong Execution.” Once it was published, he wished he could’ve taken it back. The man holding the gun happened to be repected Southern Vietnam soldier Nguyen Ngoc Loan, and had helped rescue U.S. soldiers. When he came to the U.S. and tried to open a restaurant, the people in his town found out who he was and put him out of business. The execution seems heartless and inhumane. But didn’t Nguyen suffer from the war, too? Didn’t his story deserve to be told?

Another example is Kevin Carter‘s photograph of a vulture leering at a starving girl in Sudan. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it, just like Adams. The image was ubiquitous. It illustrated, once again, what the world had turned its back on and refused to see. Soon after Carter received the award, he took his own life. The image haunted him, but people continued to republish it because people couldn’t stop looking at it.

To return to my original argument, I agree – someone does need to call that woman out and shame her for posting her image of the mutilated child on her flickr. But is this the appropriate way of doing it? To re-post her image in a different context? How does that change the way we gaze at such images? Anyone who has studied human rights media and photography has probably read Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. We all have this strange desire to gaze at suffering. We feel a perverse pleasure from it, and these human rights images stimulate that excitement (whether we want it to or not).

Re-posting this image puts it in a different context, but it doesn’t encourage any other form of photography. If we want to alter the way human rights media works, we need to understand this desire to gaze, and what alternative methods we can use to create an equally effective image.

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