This morning a friend sent me a link to a series of before/after photo’s of Japanese towns that were devastated by the tsunami and earthquake. The pictures were aerial shots of towns and airports and factories and possibly farms. I started to look at the pictures and after two or three I had stop because it had just become crushingly sad, I couldn’t bear to look.
There were no images of corpses or gore or displaced peoples or crying people separated from their families. No images of dogs wandering about in the ruins. No squalor, no morbid fixation on despair. How was it that these aerial photographs had affected me so deeply that I had to look away, not in disgust but in crushing sorrow? I have become inured to the litany of trite photojournalistic images that make some melodramatic appeal to me through the shock of gore and the suffering of sympathetic but nameless others. These sort of images have become interchangeable to me, a kind of shorthand for what we already know: that war is horrendous and absurd, that disease and famine persist, that fate can be so indifferent, so cruel.
My first two ill-considered guesses (I still need to think on this matter a while) are about the use of aerial photographs and the way the difference was presented. Aerial photographs have long been a go-to realm for a kind of supposedly objective photography, a way of minimising the voice and the eye of the photographer and the editor. There are no emotional appeals, no depictions of individual human suffering, no hope to evoke outrage. There is just what was and what is. Destruction.
The second of these guesses is more tenuous: that the presentation of overlayed before/after images which the viewer drags one way or another makes the viewer somehow complicit in the destruction, the erasure, of the landscape with the dragging of the mouse. That by looking, by wanting to see we are involved in the disaster. I felt that at least if I stopped dragging, I could stop looking. I wouldn’t have to see more. I don’t really know how to feel about this. Does it matter if I look away? It feels like a kind of denial of the nature of the world, a way of pretending that something tragic didn’t happen at all. But what good does the looking do?
This whole vein of thinking was of course covered by Susan Sontag in her book Regarding The Pain Of Others, which I recommend to everyone. I can’t quite remember if she had an satisfactory answer as to why we should look at these images, or what good it could if these kinds of images moved us in some way, that somehow our emotional response could make us feel like was had paid our penance, contributed our piece to the well of communal suffering. As though looking was a sufficient kind of reaction.
For my part I have more pressing, more personal concerns in other corners of the world. I’ve seen no photographs from Manama and I can’t see that it’d do me any good to see the photographs if there are any. Youths taking to the streets with clubs and axes. Clashes with the police. I’ve seen these photographs before: the players change but the parts remain mostly the same.