Visualizing anguish

In the beginning of July, I traveled to Vancouver, BC to attend this year’s International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) conference. Many of the presenters and attendees are trained in and practice sociology, the conference is also attended by public health workers, psychologists, art historians, photographers and artists, among others. The common thread through all of the work presented was the use of visual methodologies in social science research. It was a rich and diverse three days, but it was the last session I attended on the very last day of the conference that still has me thinking.

The panel was entitled Dilemmas Involved in Visually Representing War and Trauma. Two of the four presentations in the session focused on the psychological and ethical environment created by the action of visually documenting another human’s suffering. The work presented by the two researchers revealed the complex ethical and moral dilemmas inherent when one is confronted with a scene of anguish and the decision to take a picture is made over any other possible action.

"Mine is a world of incomprehensible shadows". Severely retarded mentally and physically, she never spoke, was stunted and probably never walked. She was one of a quarter of the world’s children at risk of iodine deficiency, known to be the world’s leading cause of preventable mental retardation.CREDIT: I, Tyabji. Downloaded on 16 Aug 2011 from

Debra Pentecost, a sociologist from the University of British Columbia, presented a talk called Times of war and conflict: Exposure to traumatic events.  She discussed the ethics of representation inherent in the task of documenting war, pain, and violence. She quoted passages from interviews she conducted with photojournalists, sharing comments some made about the impotence they feel when the only comfort they can offer their subjects is that the “image will appear on the news.” Pentecost explained that some of the photographers told her they thought this meant nothing to subjects in the photos, victims of the violence being documented. She talked about the perceived value of difficult images, both as historical evidence and media fodder. (There was an unintentionally dramatic moment occurred when the drumming and chanting of a religious ritual being demonstrated in a presentation next door interrupted Pentecost as she was speaking about censorship of images of war.) She asked us all to think about how we internalize and process these images and how the increasing frequency of video documentation might be influencing our feelings about documenting scenes of disaster and trauma.

Patrice Keats, a clinical psychologist from Simon Fraser University, presented on The visual work of photojournalists: Disasters, social justice violations, and war. Keats interviewed 40 photojournalists who had covered natural disaster, war, and trauma. Through her research, she asked: What is actually happening from a psychological perspective when photojournalists are taking photos of disaster, violence and trauma? What enables these professionals to put the task of visual documentation before all else?  She shared excerpts from her interviews, revealing the ways in which photojournalists described the camera acting as mediator, buffer, armor and shield between themselves and the horrific scenes they documented. She contrasted this to the role of the naked eye in witnessing and making connections with fellow humans who are suffering.

Anti-government protest in Bangkok, May 15, 2010. A woman cries as there are still wounded men lying out on Rama 4. The army continues to shoot at the location where they are lying even after people, including Thai journalists and rescue workers, have asked them to stop. One hardcore "red shirt" boy runs out to aid the wounded.. By Takeaway. Downloaded on 16 Aug 2011 from

Both researchers were essentially asking the same questions: What does it mean for someone to observe pain and anguish, and react by pushing a shutter release to create a visual representation of the suffering?  What are the social, cultural and personal implications of this action? How does society see both the photographer and the product of his or her action?

Neither presentation offered anything close to definitive answers, but the open discussion that followed revealed the deep chord that this work had struck with the room full of visual researchers.

One of the themes of that conversation was the inherent value of capturing images of difficult scenes. While there was not consensus among the entire audience, most people seemed to agree that there was cultural and social value in documenting the human experience of suffering. Of interest was the complex social role played by those both willing and able to document such difficult experiences, and the negative, or at the very least conflicting, perceptions society sometimes had about such people. In this context, a classic article was mentioned: “Good people and dirty work,” written by EC Hughes in 1962. Hughes was an early contributor to the study of Nazi Germany.

At some point, one of the audience members brought up the issue of citizen journalism. By this point, we have all probably read, if not actually contributed to, some form of citizen journalism, in the form of “eye witness reports” aggregated by the 24hour news programs.  Social media has changed the role of the citizen journalist, and the group wondered how the task of documenting such events may be changing as a result. Live blogging, tweeting and video uploads are all venues for the lay person to contribute to the journalistic record. In this sense, now we all have the means to be photojournalists, from production to dissemination.

But does the citizen photojournalist have the same mandates, the same ethical principles as the professional? Does the person holding the camera phone when disaster strikes feel the same responsibilities toward documenting the breadth of the human experience as the trained photojournalist? Is the camera lens of the professional somehow different or more legitimate than the camera phone of the citizen when it comes to authority to document suffering?

If your house were burning down, and your neighbor stopped to take a photo before helping you, how would you react? Would you feel differently if a professional photojournalist did the same thing? Would you feel differently if that photo your neighbor took was eventually published on the front page of The New York Times? How about if you saw it on Facebook?

Yes, this session still has me thinking, maybe because, for me, it generated far more questions than it answered.

Burning House in Le Moule, Guadeloupe, August 2009. By KoS. Downloaded on 16 Aug 2011 from


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