A good shock

Is there value in viewing invasive, tragic images?

First published in the Sep/Oct 2015 issue of This.

Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it, or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.

In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag wrote: “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it, or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

Since the Vietnam War, images of “real horror” have been widely available and accessible. Photography has given us the opportunity to bear witness to things that happen in our world, including extreme suffering. I think that’s important; that we should bear witness. But I want that to be a choice people make, challenging themselves to see and attempt to understand the wider world. I feel like that’s part of the social contract. But no one had to choose to see Alan. His image was more than pervasive, it was invasive, posted and re-posted to Twitter and Facebook for weeks. It used to be that to see this kind of extreme suffering, you had to tune into the news or pick up a paper. Alan was just there. You didn’t even have to click on a link, because as soon as you logged into Facebook or Twitter he appeared, juxtaposed with pithy television reviews and cookie recipes and advertisements for Frank & Oak’s fall collection and, most tragically, pictures of your friends’ kids going back to school.

Alan arrived without warning (or trigger warning), breaking through the clutter to be publicly mourned, crassly politicized and repeatedly shared. Spreading images has become so easy that we don’t distinguish between “This should be seen” from “I’m going to show you.” We became voyeurs and then made damn sure everyone else was right there with us, and Alan became one of those things we were all paying attention to at the same time (which is rarer than you might think, but still). Sharing Alan’s image is easy because it’s visceral without being graphic. It’s easy because we’re angry and we’re sad. It’s easy because we want the world to be better. But mostly it’s easy because it’s really astoundingly easy – just click.

“Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses,” Sontag wrote. “A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness that terrible things happen.” It’s too early to tell what Alan’s legacy will be. Maybe he’ll change the world or maybe it’ll be just another cultural blip – a thing we all kind of remember. The truth is, a photograph that can change the world overnight doesn’t come along very often. It’s not easy to dent the universe. But maybe because of Alan and that photo, someone voted differently (or at all). Maybe a government (maybe even our government) did a little more than it otherwise would have to help refugees like him. Maybe someone’s life was saved. I can’t say the passing around of a dead child’s photo like just another Internet meme is something I support, but I also can’t imagine that all of us seeing that dead child didn’t push us to do something good, however small.

I wasn’t ready to see Alan when I did and I made the decision not to share his image with others. But I also don’t wish I hadn’t seen it. The reality is, how I feel about it doesn’t matter – I have seen it and I will remember it. In some way we all will because for an instant Alan was ubiquitous and he showed us how simultaneously horrible and fragile humanity can be. And for better or worse, we all bore witness.