Could photos of gun violence save lives?
Edited by Sam Thielman
In her 1977 book On Photography, Susan Sontag questioned whether images of violence had the power to shock people into moral action. There were simply too many pictures of too many horrible things — crime, poverty, the war in Vietnam —to expect any to move public opinion. She wrote: “Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle. As much as they create sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions.”
Twenty-five years later, she changed her mind. In her last book, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag admitted a lack of evidence for her previous claims. Now, inspired perhaps by the aftermath of 9/11 and the outpouring of nationalist fury that led to the invasion of Iraq, she held that images can stir passions. But that was not the end of the issue. For one, the reactions to a shocking image are unpredictable. “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” The apathetic response, she reflected, was not a product of “the quantity of images dumped on” an unwitting public, but rather the feeling (inculcated, I’d argue) that nothing can be done to stop the horror. Sontag concluded: “It is passivity that dulls feeling.”
A version of Sontag’s debate with herself has again been percolating in the aftermath of the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas. I put it this way a day after the shooting:
Sarah Hightower, an extremism researcher and expert on the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, responded like this:
Fair enough. This was my thinking: Millions of Americans love, if not outright worship, guns. But the vast majority of Americans have never seen what a bullet, much less one fired from a military-grade rifle, actually does to a human body. For all the platitudes about the supposed sensationalism of the media, U.S. news organizations, in particular, have a severe allergy to showing the actual effects of violence — especially on bodies that they expect a (largely white, largely middle-to-upper-class) American audience to identify with.
I know this first hand. I have seen people get shot and bleed to death in front of me in my capacity as a foreign correspondent. And I’ve seen the unedited camera rolls of my photographer colleagues in war zones — pictures of children shredded by machine-gun fire and dying American soldiers holding their own shredded intestines like so much hamburger meat in their hands — both of us knowing full well that such images will never be seen by the public, at least for a generation, or in time for it to have any effect. When photos of the dead do get published, they tend to be of foreign subjects, and of the largely bloodless variety.
What if, I wonder, people were confronted with the horrible destructive power of the guns that pervade and terrorize our society? Would images of 10-year-olds’ broken and bloodied faces yank the conversation out of the purgatory of abstraction, and into a realm where some concrete action, political or otherwise, might actually be done to stop the killing?
Hightower made a different case, persuasively in my opinion. As she put it: “Releasing those pictures to the public would be akin to pouring kerosene on an untold number of smoldering fires.” Some extremists will seek them out and share them like trading cards as inspiration for future attacks. Others will simply insist that the photos are somehow unreal — that they are “CGI,” or taken from a different event, or make-up on a “crisis actor.” (This, too, brings to mind Sontag, who in her 2003 book cited Serbs and Croats passing along the same photos of children killed in the shelling of a village, with the captions altered to identify them as being from their side. As Sontag notes elsewhere: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”)
And here, I have my own contradictory evidence to go on. In Haiti, one of the most published photographs of the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake was the lifeless body of Fabienne Cherisma, a 15-year-old girl shot to death on Port-au-Prince’s shattered Grand Rue. According to reporters on the scene when she died, Cherisma was running with an armful of paintings when she was shot by a police officer who suspected her of having stolen them from a collapsed store. Foreign photographers literally lined up to take her picture. (A photo of the scrum and her body can be seen here, along with evidence that the body was manipulated.) At least five won major photojournalism awards for their shots of her.
That bloody photo, taken without the family’s consent, did nothing for anyone except the photographers and their news organizations. The New York Times — which gave the post-Uvalde photo debate a full treatment — was one of the hundreds of publications that ran a photo of Cherisma’s body, apparently without debate. They did so in service of a false narrative: that the shooting was evidence of rampant lawlessness and violent chaos in the quake zone — chaos that could only be stopped by the long arm of the law, and by extension a robust, gun-toting international military response. (I explain the many reasons that narrative was wrong in my book on the Haiti quake.)
This helped no one in Haiti, much less Chermisa’s grieving family or the hundreds who would be killed by police massacres and other state violence in the years that followed, backed by the same militarist international policies in places like Washington, and cheered on by U.S. newspapers that were still calling for “muscular” intervention in Haiti as recently as last year.
Are these the people whose news judgment we’d rely on to make sure the photos conveyed the right message to at least part of the body politic? It is easy to imagine that the publication of graphic images of American children — images likely to play a powerful role in a highly charged political debate — will be followed not by soul-searching about the nature and causes of social violence but by blame-casting and meta-narratives about social media moderation and arguments about which side will benefit the most.
Sontag never resolved her personal debate over this question. In a critical essay published shortly after Sontag’s death in 2004, Judith Butler accused her fellow writer of having being too cute by half in her protestations of passivity: “To be as it were, a white liberal who worries the question of what one can politically do is to be self-preoccupied, guilty, introspective, even narcissistic, and so once again to fail to find a way to respond effectively to the suffering of others.” (Butler followed this up with a compliment to her late colleague, noting that Sontag herself had provided some of the “most honest and trenchant public criticisms” of the wars and atrocities in question, and so by resigning herself was erasing her own contributions.)
As I gestured in the tweet above, my only lesson to share from my experience is that the decision to share intimate, shocking, and thus potentially harmful images should be up to the families of the victims. Even then there won’t be clear answers. Different families surely have different feelings about this question, even though one family’s decision will likely affect many others. A few years back, students at Columbine High School tried to start a national campaign in which students would put a signed sticker on the back of their drivers’ license that reads: “In the event that I die from gun violence, please publicize the photo of my death. #MyLastShot.” Would their survivors even honor that request?
My instinct is to side with those students. I’d follow the examples of Mamie Till-Mobley, Nick Ut, or Darnella Frazier — the latter of whom shot and shared the video of the police murder of George Floyd. Those are all examples of people who shared an image that shocked, enraged, and ultimately catalyzed milions into action. But then, I am a journalist, and maybe of the kind that Sontag was thinking about when she wrote with knowing irony in the last words of her last book:
“We” — this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through — don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it is like … That’s what every solider, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.
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